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The FIRST-98 regional competition in Chicago, Illinois

Rob Turner

Photography courtesy of Mark Wright

Take 30 companies, mix them with 30 high schools and set them to work on making gladiator robots that move three-foot balls around a perimeter for points. Let simmer for six weeks. Pour concoction into a specially-built high-tech arena. Stir in two ten-foot action monitors, referees, and great camera coverage. Sprinkle liberally with concentrated team spirit while playing every high energy rap and rock song ever made. Add robots and bring to boil. You just duplicated the recipe for the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics competition in Chicago, Illinois. Serves 1,900 people.

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One of the two arenas

The FIRST competition is more like a sporting event than a robotics competition - except that I’ve never attended a sporting event with such a charged atmosphere. The event this year was centered around a hexagon-shaped arena with stations that allow human users to remotely control their team robot and pick up big rubber balls. Each team has nine balls that they can place on side goals for points or in the center goal for double points. As many as three teams can compete at the same time with no limit of mobility in the arena. That means you can retrieve balls from the other side of the arena or try and block opponents from scoring. Easy.

Oh, did I forget to mention the time limit? Teams only get five minutes to do their thing. So if Super Robot comes and knocks all of Hypobot’s balls off of the goals, and Hypobot’s time runs out, too bad. And just to spice it up, human team members can throw balls into the center goal from the side lines or try to knock competitor balls off the side goals. With this many variables, strategy becomes a big factor.

In fact, strategy became a real big factor during the games in Chicago. It became pretty obvious that the machines competing had been put together with a lot of forethought. There where robots that could hold up to three balls in built-in hoppers, robots with arms that extended well over the top of the center goal, even robots that had little suction cup tethers that could be attached to a ball so the ball wouldn’t be pulled from the robot’s grip. The wide variety of shapes and sizes made for some exciting matches.

There was a lot of shuffling for position in the first round. What became apparent was the strategies that teams employed. Some teams would feed all of the balls on the sidelines to their robots, which would then attempt to place them in the goals. Other teams would try shooting the ball into the goal basketball-style and bypass the robot altogether. Throwing balls to try and knock opposing teams’ balls off the goals, therefore reducing their point total, was also an option.

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Truck Town Terror's T3 (68) and the Bomb Squad (16) battling it out

When it came down to the last eight robots, things got serious. Instead of three robots competing in a ring at the same time, you had two: machine against machine. Those that couldn’t perform had been weeded out via competitive evolution. If a team had their robot in the final eight, it wasn’t due to luck - they deserved it. These teams had the high-performance machines, capable operators, and a methodology to their approach. The competitions where intense. The center goal would fill up within minutes. And then it got even hotter.

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Red Knights WAWD

A serious high point was when the Red Knight’s robot WWAD? was extending to place a ball into the center goal. WWAD? was broad-sided by the Bomb Squad; for a glorious moment, WWAD? hung in the air, then slowly toppled backward. The thump of the robot hitting the floor was drowned out by the roar of the crowd. Robot parts flew everywhere. It was the unfortunate end for WWAD? - but they went out in style!

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Bostang's The Boss


By the time the last four competitors took their positions on the floor, it was Boston Scientific Bostang’s Boss versus GM Milford’s Hotbot, and Baxter’s Bomb Squad versus GM Proving Ground’s Pretzelator. Though the Boss and the Hotbot had similar approaches, the Boss came out on top. But the competition between the Bomb Squad and the Pretzelator got complicated. The Bomb Squad and the Pretzelator had each won one match, and they where battling over who would go to the next level. Time was up, and both teams had points in the hundreds. Or did they? One of the last balls placed in the center goal by the Pretzelator was protruding from the top of the goal. The referees had a ten minute discussion trying to identify if that last ball was actually in the goal. Their decision would determine who would go to the next level. In a mind numbing decision, the referees determined the last ball did not have the majority of its mass in the goal. The Pretzelator lost, and the Bomb Squad rolled on.


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The Baxter Bomb Squad in action

In the final round there where only two machines. The Bostang’s Boss had a single gripper fixed to an arm that could extend over the top of the center goal. The Bostang team knew the controls so well, it looked liked the Boss was dancing when it moved. The Bomb Squad had a hopper that could hold three balls and spit them out directly into the side of the center goal. Two great machines, but only one could win. When all was said and done, the Bomb Squad took first place with a winning strategy of scooping balls into their hopper and dumping them into the center goal. Then the Bomb Squad grabbed one ball and held it in the three point position of the side goal until time expired, outscoring the single-ball-placement technique used by the Boss.

With the winner and runner-up moving on to Orlando, Florida for the final games, I walked away feeling I had been a part of something really cool, something worth doing. I’m definitely going to watch a competition next year. I might even convince my company to create our own "robot recipe". See you then!

More Great Pictures of the competition

Rob Turner is a mild mannered Machine Maintenance technician for Boston Scientific-SCIMED during the day, and Roving Robotic Reporter on the weekends. He has a couple robots he is constructing (yeah show me!) for the St. Paul Science Museum in Minnesota in late May. He can be reached at ROBT612@aol.com