Pirates of Silicon Alley

Pirates of Silicon Alley

Cristina Ruiz (l) and Abdel Faraj (r) of G-House Pirates working with their team in the pit before their next round.

photo by João-Pierre S. Ruth

Grab and Stack

Grab and Stack

Some teams chose to work their way up by grabbing, and then stacking totes in the scoring area.

photo by João-Pierre S. Ruth

Game Faces

Game Faces

Quickly formed alliances had to learn to cooperate and leverage each other's strengths in order to advance.

photo by João-Pierre S. Ruth

Young Builders and Programmers

Young Builders and Programmers

In place of metal robot gears, the FIRST LEGO leaguers built creations from LEGO kits to perform tasks and move along a preset path.

photo by Joao-Pierre S. Ruth

Planning Ahead

Planning Ahead

The LEGO kits were programmed in advance by the teams. There is a bit of manual guidance, but their creations move autonomously, with no remote controls to steer them.

photo by João-Pierre S. Ruth

The Bigger They Are

The Bigger They Are

Building tall, stable stacks was essential for teams to rack up points and advance.

photo by João-Pierre S. Ruth

Quiet Before the Metal Storm

Quiet Before the Metal Storm

The young ladies of Double XX, Team 4856 from the Brearley and Chapin Schools, await their turn in the semifinals.

photo by João-Pierre S. Ruth

Field Mechanics

Field Mechanics

Sometimes teams had to give their robots some quick care after rounds ended.

photo by João-Pierre S. Ruth

Force to Be Reckoned With

Force to Be Reckoned With

The robot built by The Hurricanes, Team 3171 from Westhampton Beach High School, was a dominant force in the competition. The team won the Creativity Award this year.

photo by João-Pierre S. Ruth

Load Masters

Load Masters

Team 2344, The Saunders Droid Factory, worked fast and efficiently throughout the compeition.

photo by João-Pierre S. Ruth

Heading to the Winners' Circle

Heading to the Winners' Circle

Smooth maneuvers such as this helped Team 2344, The Saunders Droid Factory, claim a spot among the regional champs.

photo by João-Pierre S. Ruth

Down in the crew pits, Team 354—the G-House Pirates—made their last checks and tweaks on their robot.

Whining gears and the hum of motors filled the air and everyone was sporting safety glasses. Some of the robots were strictly business, built to get the job done with no-nonsense looks. Other teams had constructed machines that resembled hot rods—brightly painted and tricked out with running lights. Regardless of the aesthetics, they all put in sweat equity and came to win.

That was the scene this past weekend at the 15th anniversary NYC Regional Championship for FIRST Robotics. More than 66 teams of young innovators brought their tools, robots, and enthusiasm for engineering to the Jacob Javits Convention Center. Though mostly local high schools were represented, some competitors came from Turkey, China, Brazil, and Britain. On the line was a chance to go to April’s world championship in St. Louis, MO, to face other top winning teams.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics is a tournament series held around the country to encourage youths to take hands-on interest in designing and building robots. Other cities that host these competitions include Boston, MA; Denver, CO; San Diego, CA; Houston, TX; and Raleigh, NC.

The main show is where high schoolers, grades 9 through 12, compete. There were also events for younger students: the FIRST LEGO League championship had some 80 teams of kids from grades 4 though 8, and the Junior FIRST LEGO League is for kids in kindergarten through third grade. (See slideshow.)

Hailing from George Westinghouse High School in Brooklyn, the G-House Pirates were eager to top their performance in 2014. Team captain Abdel Faraj, a 12th grader, told me that last year the team came in second place at the regional competition. The team’s history stretches back to 2000, when the school began participating in FIRST Robotics.

This year’s game was called Recycle Rush. The teams had to guide their robots to stack plastic totes—the higher the better—and then cap them with a cylindrical recycling bin for more points.

Each stack, which had to stand unassisted on a platform, added to the teams’ scores. It sounds easy, but even after some practice runs the bins and totes did not always fall perfectly in place.

There is a fair amount of time pressure to even qualify to be in the running. Teams find out just six weeks in advance what the task will be for the competition. “Once you get told what the game will be that year, you start building,” said Cristina Ruiz, a senior who worked on programming for the G-House team.

Strategies during the game naturally varied. Some teams designed robots to assemble a tall stack layer by layer, and then move the entirety to the scoring platform. The trick was keeping the stack from toppling along the way. Other teams tried building their stacks on the platform, piece by piece.

Faraj said G-House took the first approach, using their robot to create tall towers of totes, capped with a recycling bin. “We thought, what’s the most convenient way to save time and get more points?”

But scoring was not just about how well the Pirates did on their own—FIRST Robotics steers the teams to collaborate and cooperate. Competitors must form alliances of three teams each to try and outscore the opposing alliance on the other side of the field. So while the G-House Pirates slowly but surely assembled and moved their stacks in place, their partner teams could try to quickly build separate stacks on the fly.

On Sunday, the G-House Pirates and their alliance climbed their way to the finals. In a pitched faceoff, with an ending round that was very close, Team 354 and its partners were edged out.

The NYC regional champ for 2015 was an alliance that operated with clockwork efficiency: Team 1884, The Griffins from The American School in London & Quintin Kynaston Academy; Team 1796, RoboTigers from Queens Vocational and Technical High School; and Team 2344, The Saunders Droid Factory from Saunders Trades & Technical High School.

The winners of the Regional Chairman’s Award, Team 375, Robotic Plague from Staten Island Technical School, will also advance to the world championship competition.

Surely the regional champs are working on their strategy for St. Louis. Meanwhile, the G-House Pirates, who came away with the Quality Award this time around, will have next year to give it another go.