The Exciting World of Robot Competitions
There is a trend afoot—the number of robotics hobbyists of all ages is rapidly growing. Some estimate that the number of students involved in robotics activities is expanding at 20% to 30% annually. Most parents openly encourage their young children to pursue robotics. After all, they are learning a great deal in the process. Electronics, programming, mechanics, and pneumatics are only a few of the many subjects in robotics. Organizations ranging from the National Science Foundation and NASA to school boards across the country are also strongly promoting robotics teams and activities. Today, a young man or woman interested in robotics has a huge assortment of opportunities to build and exhibit a robot, to work with others with similar interests and to pursue related technical fields that will be in ever higher demand. It’s a good thing for all concerned.
There are a few levels of involvement for robotics enthusiasts—the hobbyist level, the informal level within the education arena, and formal programs that meet specific educational or institutional criteria. Here, I’ll introduce some of the informal robotics activities that actively involve students. This is a middle ground where hobby robots and school robotics projects often overlap.
The lineage of the hobbyist robots traces back to the Heathkit electronics kits of the 1960s. Today, that tradition is continued with excellent robot kits manufactured by Tamiya, Owi Robotics, Parallax, Lynxmotion, Hitec, Kondo, LEGO, Radio Shack and many other companies. There are several competitions where student hobbyists can test their creativity against others – this adds a lot of fun to the mix. These include the RoboGames put on by the Robotics Society of America and BrickFest, which involves LEGO MINDSTORMS™ robots.
Although not widely recognized, team robotics activities conducted informally within the education arena have grown with meteoric speed in recent years. Informal education robotics activities take place around schools and usually require a school as a venue for building the robot. Schools often sponsor teams or events. This is classified as informal education because the activities are for inspiration and the learning of life skills (e.g., development of funding, project management, team coordination) so it is not considered “formal instruction” per se. In fact, many teams are not led by teachers but by local volunteers who may be dedicated hobbyists with special expertise.
The college age group has the longest history. MIT and Caltech have been hosting robotics events as part of engineering classes for years. The “egg drop” and “bridge building” contests are the direct ancestors of the robot contests of today.
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International(AUVSI) competition is primarily for university students. AUVSI has a variety of competitions in flying, underwater and terrestrial robots. Another underwater competition, MATE also started as a university competition; although, now it allows for high school entrants. These competitions require the participants to integrate a great deal of technical knowledge and engineering skill into creating a functioning robot.
Battlebots IQ (BBIQ) is also a popular contest for university students. It is a combat competition that is a spin-off of the very popular TV show, Battlebots, which used to run on Comedy Central. BBIQ was first developed for high school teams. In fact, BBIQ boasts a fully developed robotics curriculum for high school classes that has been painstakingly written by robotics veteran Mike Bastoni. However, the founders of BBIQ soon realized that university students are also very interested in combat robots and are often less constrained than high school students by liability insurance and educational requirements. BBIQ has both a high school division and a university division.
The Trinity College Fire Fighting contest has junior high, high school and university divisions. The goal is to create a robot that can find an open flame and extinguish it autonomously. Added benefit of this competition for the winners is a cash prize!
RoboCup perhaps has the loftiest goal of them all, “By mid-21st century, a team of fully autonomous humanoid robot soccer players shall win the soccer game, comply with the official rules of the FIFA, and compete against the winner of the most recent World Cup.” RoboCup was originally designed to be a research and education initiative for Artificial Intelligence researchers. Today the competition focus has strayed from soccer to other areas of interest like search and rescue. The competition has expanded its participants to include high school and even some elementary students. However, the event’s core goal remains the same.
At the high school level, there are many more competitions. The grandest of them all is FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). FIRST is actually an organization that sponsors three different competitions.
FIRST’s founder is Dean Kamen, the inventor of the portable insulin pump, former owner of a helicopter company, and most recently, the developer of the Segway Human Transporter. He is a man of legend and controversy. He once filed papers so that he and his island, North Dumpling, could secede from the union. He even published a statement of willingness to offer foreign aid to the United States.
For academic credibility, FIRST has Woody Flowers, an accomplished mechanical engineering professor at MIT. Professor Flowers taught the famed Engineering 2.007 course, “Introduction to Design.” This course has a design challenge as a culminating project. FIRST’s Flagship Robotics Competition, FRC, is developed each year around similar principles.
Technically, FIRST does not have competitions. They are “cooperatitions.” A cooperatition has a competitive aspect as well as a cooperative aspect. Teams in FIRST work together in an alliance of teams against other alliances. The alliances are fluid. Therefore, your partner in one match is likely to be your opponent in another. This leads to a more cooperative atmosphere for the entire event. This cooperative atmosphere has been captured in the mantra of “Gracious Professionalism,” a notion that every member of a FIRST team should embody.
Currently the FRC has over 1000 teams and over 24,000 students participating in the event, up from 900 teams and 19,000 students just a year earlier. This rapid growth has been sustained for years. Regional FIRST competitions are held throughout the country. The regionals consist of between 30 and 70 teams. They generally take place in local stadiums or arenas that can accommodate thousands of spectators and team members. They also must have additional space for the robot pits. At the regionals, teams can qualify for the International FIRST Championship Event that is held annually in Atlanta at the Georgia Dome, home of the Atlanta Falcons. The regionals and national championship have the excitement of rock concerts. Announcers call the games; celebrities and dignitaries present the awards; music is blaring; and the competition rounds are broadcast on huge TV screens throughout the arena and pit area. They are huge celebrations of innovation and ingenuity. This is intentional; because FIRST founders believe that, as a society, you get what you celebrate. And they certainly celebrate robots!
Unfortunately, all of this fanfare has a high price. The entrance fee for a regional competition is $6.000. Although this compares favorably to an average football team budget, it is pricey for most schools. Nevertheless, FIRST has been very successful in bringing on corporate sponsors for their events. In fact, the participating schools are very representative of the national demographics of schools. In other words, this is not just a competition for rich schools. Many inner city minority schools have teams in FIRST, thanks to full sponsorship from concerned industry sponsors.
FIRST also supports a farm league of sorts for the FRC, FIRST LEGO League (FLL) and, introducing this year, the Radio Shack VEXTM Competition. The FLL is targeted at 4th to 9th graders and involved 48,000 students in 2005! They build and program LEGO MINDSTORMS robots to do a variety of tasks around an engaging theme like space or ocean exploration. Each year is a new competition like the bigger FRC. Unlike the FRC, the registration and entrance fees for the local competitions are very low. A team can register and attend several competitions on a budget of $500. The local competition events’ entrance fees are capped at $50.
FIRST is also considering the idea of an intermediary competition that would use the Radio Shack VEX Robotics Kits as the platform. The VEX kits are directly descended from Erector Sets. They have the same metal pieces with the strange square holes. VEX, some believe, will fill a niche between LEGO and the FRC. LEGO seems to have the most appeal to students in upper elementary and into middle school. VEX may be just what the teacher ordered to get started with robotics. The cost of the platform and competition are much less than for the FRC; the starter kits cost $300. The competitions are likely to be locally run or a hybrid between the FLL and the FRC.
Another large high school based competition is BEST (Boosting Engineering, Science, and Technology). There are over 700 teams and 8,000 participants mostly concentrated in the South. Two Texas Instrument engineers, Ted Mahler and Steve Marum, who were also inspired by the MIT 2.007 course, created BEST. School teams do not have to pay to register or enter competitions for BEST. A competition is built around a hub. The hub is usually a university that funds everything and acts as a venue for the competition. The teams get an odd assortment of parts from which to create a working robot. Many competitors relate the competition to the Apollo 13 challenge. When the ill-fated Apollo 13 lost oxygen and fuel, the ground crew and astronauts had to quickly determine a workable solution to get the ship and crew back to Earth safely. All they had to work with was a pile of stuff, similar to what BEST teams get each year, to create their robots.
FIRST and BEST are similar in many ways. Like FIRST, BEST is a telerobotic competition; the robots are primarily driven with an RC controller. Both also have several mini challenges within the competition, e.g., CAD multimedia contest, spirit award, publicity award, and most innovative award. The competition progresses from a local hub competition to a national championship.
AUTONOMOUS ROBOT COMPETITIONS
Botball is yet another middle school/high school robotics competition that involves an added layer of programming. Many roboticists believe that a true robot must be able to think and react to its environment autonomously. High school students and, starting this year, adults must program their robots to accomplish all the required tasks of the competition. When the robot competes, the only thing the driver may do is push a button to turn it on. Like the FLL, a Botball robot is built upon a LEGO chassis. Botball has a unique controller, however. The robot controller is an XBC controller that plugs into a Game Boy Advance box. During the competitions, adults are not allowed in the pit area (unless it is the adult competition).
RoboFest is another autonomous robotics competition for middle school and high school students.
RoboFest was founded by CJ Chung, Associate Professor at Lawrence Tech University, in 2000. It is unique; because on the day of the competition, the students do not know the dimension of the playing field or one of the problems that they will have to solve during the competition. To make it even more interesting, the playing field changes during the match. Also, students can use any robot kit or program to create their robots.
There are many more informal competitions available to students around the country and around the world; and we will touch on them in future issues of ROBOT. Many of these are spinoff competitions of the larger competitions, off season events, or one-time events staged for a county fair or educational conference. Kenneth Berry is an Assistant Professor at California State University, Northridge.
ROBOT INTERVIEWS: GATORBOTICS FIRST ROBOTICS COMPETITION TEAM 1700
ROBOT had the opportunity to interview an all-girls FIRST team and their advisor based at the Castilleja School Mathematics Department in Palo Alto, CA; but the team members did all the talking during the interview, and their sense of excitement and accomplishment was palpable. We spoke with Hannah Sachs, Jennifer DePuy, Meg York, Kersten Schnurle, Chrissy Crone, Sophia Berger (lead member) and Julia Lee (specialty: electronics). All participated in this joint interview. Gatorbotics Team 1700 successfullycompeted in the FIRST regionals and nationals in 2005. The team was mentored by engineers primarily from IDEO, a product development company in Palo Alto.
ROBOT: What was it like competing in the FIRST Robotics Competition?
Gatorbotics: Going to Georgia was an honor; and as a rookie team, we didn’t expect to be real competitive, but the main thing was that we built our robot entirely ourselves and we feel that really helped us.
ROBOT: What was the task that had to be performed?
Gatorbotics: The Triple Play, which involved stacking tetrahedrals on top of towers. Teams were randomly selected to form alliances, and the alliances competed to win.
ROBOT: Tell us about the design process—how did you go about creating your robot?
Gatorbotics: We all got together and considered offense and defense aspects, and we designed the arm and chassis. We agreed that the simplest design, a four-wheel chassis, straight arm with a motor and a simple passive tetra gripper (more reliable than an active gripper), would be the way to go.
ROBOT: How many iterations of the design?
Gatorbotics: We mounted the arm as high as we could while staying within height limits (five feet); yet we needed to stack the tetras to up to seven feet. We mounted the arm as high as we could without disturbing the CG. We prototyped with PVC and wood, before building the robot. We used angle iron but we found it was hard to get the right pieces, so we moved to 8020 aluminum. We wound up truncating the arm and modularizing the whole thing so that we could work on the chassis separately.
ROBOT: Power source?
Gatorbotics: This is all standardized. 12V lead acid and a 7V backup NiCd.
ROBOT: How much should a team be prepared to consider spending?
Gatorbotics: You have to buy all of the parts that you need to build the robot. Our team spent probably $20,000 for registration, hardware, software and other expenses; and some teams spent multiples of that. That’s part of FIRST—it’s not just building the bot; it’s working as a team, securing funding and more.
ROBOT: Overall, how did you benefit from this experience?
Gatorbotics: The experience was very educational. We knew how to fix our robot—the build team spent 70 hours finishing the robot in a single week. In the short term, maybe some of the other teams had high-end robots built by engineers associated with their sponsors, but we had the interest to do it ourselves, and that’s a long-term benefit. Seeing your robot in action is cool, but seeing other teams’ robots in action is also very cool. We started out knowing nothing, and designed, built and competed with a robot that we could repair. Another great thing is that the people who do robotics are not the stereotypical nerds—we are an all female team. One of the tetras fell on our robot and broke a casing, and some boys were asking us if we needed help—we didn’t. We are happy to be part of breaking that stereotype. At the Atlanta FIRST nationals, we met teams from China, France, Canada, and Brazil; and the whole thing is that we really enjoyed meeting people not only from this country but from all over the world. Hey, don’t forget to check out our website at www.gatorbotics.com.
ROBOGAMES (FORMERLY ROBOOLYMPICS):
TRINITY COLLEGE FIREFIGHTING CONTEST:
Hitec RCD USA, Inc.
www.hitecrcd.com, (858) 748-6948
www.lynxmotion.com, (866) 512-1024
www.parallax.com, (916) 624-8333
Tamiya America Inc.
www.tamiyausa.com, (800) 826-4922
Words by Ken Berry