Of FIRST Robotics “Lunacy” and A Shout Out to “Dancin’” Woz

3/9/09Follow @bbuderi

“Robot coming through…Robot.”

That was the cry, heard throughout the day Saturday at Boston University’s Agganis Arena, scene of the Boston regional finals of the annual FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics competition. The robots were constantly on the move as teams ushered them back and forth from the competition area—think basketball, with lots of twists for this year’s theme—to the staging area/work zones “backstage.”

As always, the finals were a wild affair with lots of screaming and yelling, blaring rock music, face paint galore, and costumes that would have done Rocky Horror fans proud (to give you a clue, the guy announcing all the teams wore a cape and skated around the floor on roller blades). I was there for much of the morning, speaking with competitors and planners and a few guests that included iRobot founders Helen Greiner (an Xconomist) and Colin Angle, human genome sequencer Craig Venter, Marc Hodosh (another Xconomist and chair of Boston FIRST), and FIRST National Advisor and MIT engineering professor Woodie Flowers, among others. (Flowers was lowered by cable from the rafters at last year’s FIRST event, to the tune of Mission Impossible. This year, he told me, “I came in through the back door.”) I didn’t speak to annual judge Steve Wozniak, a founder of Apple Computer, because he wasn’t there. The reason: he will compete on Dancing With the Stars, which airs tonight. The entire crowd, though, did a shout out to him at Friday night’s opening, crying out in unison: “GOOD LUCK WOZ!” (Hodosh says they are sending in the video to the TV show, in hopes it will air tonight.)

FIRST Robotics National AnthemSome 53 teams, most, but not all (see below) from around New England, took part in the event. But that’s just a fraction of the entire competition. Last year, when you include all age groups taking part in FIRST, the organization drew more than 160,000 young people from 38 countries worldwide. What I saw was just a piece of the high-school category, which itself drew 1,500 teams last year—and should be even bigger this year.

The basic idea for the high-school event is that all teams must begin with the same core electronics and motors. They then can spend up to another $3,500, with no part costing more than $400, to fine-tune and evolve their robots, which enter into “coopetition”—both competing against and cooperating with—other teams in a series of ever-changing alliances.

This year’s game was called Lunacy. It was a basketball-type game played on a hockey rink-type floor (without the ice). As the game description goes, “Two three-team robot alliances collect and score Orbit Balls in trailers attached to the opposing teams’ robots.” (You can read more here.) But how you do in Lunacy is just part of the idea behind FIRST, which doles out more than 20 awards covering things like mentorship, respect and collaboration, spirit, design elegance, and engineering features. (For more on the inspiration behind the event, check out this post from FIRST founder and Xconomist Dean Kamen.)

I spoke to some of the teams, including one from Cambridge Rindge and Latin in Xconomy’s home city, and a team from Fairfield, CA. Now I had to speak with the Fairfield team, partly because they traveled so far for the event—team members told me they wanted to get out of their region and meet teams from farther away—and partly because I started my professional journalism career in that fair city, home to Travis Air Force Base (I was the police and Air Force reporter). I was happy to learn that my old paper, The Daily Republic, is still in business.

There was lots more happening, but I am going to let my colleague, Juha-Pekka Tikka, who attended the San Diego regionals, describe the action in more detail. Meanwhile, here are some notes from a conversation I had with Xconomist John Abele, a founder of Boston Scientific and the chairman of FIRST. He gave an insightful overview to the “coopetition” and the reasons behind it. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

FIRST Boston 2009 finals—Abele said the game was purposefully made complicated—because it is important in life to learn to take into account complicated scenarios with “second and third level derivatives,” plan and budget for dealing with them, and then execute your plans by both competing against and cooperating with others. “It’s systems thinking,” he says.

—Related to the above, Abele says: “If you can design a game, you can design a company, a business.” And, as in business and life, “You’ve got to go through enormous frustration to win.”

—A main goal of FIRST is to elevate science and engineering to the level of sports in our society. To that end, Abele says, “I want the prizes to be on the same shelf all the other prizes are on.”

—On getting kids motivated in learning: “If kids want to study, all the problems we worry about—No Child Left Behind—they get left behind.”

You can find all the award winners here. The following teams will go on to the overall championship competition in mid-April in Atlanta:

Regional Winner 1—Team 61, Upton, MA
Regional Winner 2— Team 190, Worcester, MA
Regional Winner 3—Team 1099, Brookfield, CT
Engineering Inspiration Award winner—Team 178, Farmington, CT
Rookie All Star Award winner—Team 2877, Newton, MA
Regional Chairman’s Award winner—Team 88, Bridgewater, MA

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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