Robot wars

In order to win, these high school engineers must cooperate as well as compete

The competition starts the way many sporting events do, with rock music, cheerleaders, and screaming fans as referees and competitors take the field. But in this contest, the players are mechanical and the real brains stay out of the arena. They are the high school students who direct the robots they built and learned to control.

After competing in regional finals across the United States, more than 300 high school teams are gathering at Walt Disney's EPCOT Center in Orlando Fla., April 5-7 for the 2001 FIRST Robotics Competition national championship. FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a national, nonprofit group created by noted physicist, engineer, and inventor Dean Kamen in 1989.

It's not just about building the best robot. The competition aims to inspire students, provide hands-on activities, foster teamwork, and give students access to engineers who help them build the robots.

"Teamwork is a really big factor in this project," says Ben Surpless, faculty coordinator for the team from Bellarmine College Preparatory High School in San Jose, Calif. "And that's not just within the individual teams." For instance, there's a website where teams can post problems they're having with their robots and ask for help. Other teams will share how they solved similar problems. "The kids really learn how to work together," he says.

More than 530 teams have been involved in the program this year. It began with a kickoff workshop in January, when the details of this year's competition were announced. (The robots' tasks change each year.) High school teams worked with engineers for six weeks to design, construct, and test their robots. Thirteen regional competitions in March winnowed down the field.

The contest is as much about strategy as it is about engineering. Each team joins three other teams for each match. Each of the four teams receives the score that they all earn by working together.

First, the four teams agree on their strategy. They weigh the abilities of each robot. Points can be earned lots of ways. The robots can place balls into seven-foot-high goals (1 point each). They can balance larger balls on top of the goal (10 points). The total score is doubled if a goal itself can be balanced on the teeter-totter bridge in the middle of the playing field. If both goals are balanced, the score is quadrupled. A robot can be carried on a stretcher into the "end zone" (10 points for the stretcher, 10 for the robot). Robots placed in the end zone at the end of the match earn 10 points. And stopping the match before the two-minute time limit ends can double or even triple the score.

Each team is allied with three others for several qualifying matches. Top scorers - still in four-team alliances - compete in an elimination tournament. The teams may never meet until just before a match.

So teams have a lot to think about. Some team alliances decide to try to race down to the end zone and stop the match in the first 30 seconds. This triples their score. If all four robots can get into the end zone, 4 robots x 10 points = 40; tripled = 120. That's a good score in a qualifying round, but probably won't win the championship. And robots can't just streak from one end of the playing field to the other. There is a dividing rail midfield, with a teeter-totter bridge to cross. Some teams work to fill the goals and balance one or both goals on the bridge. Most try to get some of the robots into the end zone and end the match early.

Robots must have a variety of skills. Some can pick up balls and put them in goals. Others are good at pulling a teeter-totter bridge up and down to go across. Some are designed to pull goals or stretchers across the field or help right a fellow robot that has tipped over. And some robots can do it all.

Teams receive kits with motors and other parts for the robots. But every robot ends up with its own personality. Each high school team not only has students and faculty advisers, but also sponsoring organizations. These might be universities, or high-tech companies. Sponsors may also provide engineers to help.

Team No. 254, the Bellarmine College Preparatory High School team, won the Southern California Regional in Los Angeles and the Silicon Valley Regional in San Jose, Calif., last month. NASA's Ames Research Center is one of their sponsors. The students built and tested their robot at a NASA airbase and got advice from NASA engineers. They have 27 students and 7 adult leaders on their team.

Tony Watson, one of the students, says he enjoyed working with a NASA engineer and fellow team member George Stern to build the robot's arms. They tackled some "major mechanical issues," he says. "Some of these issues would have been nearly impossible" to solve alone, "but by working together, we learned a lot about each other, and I learned quite a bit about mechanical systems."

Competing isn't cheap. Mr. Surpless estimates that the cost for Bellarmine's participation is $30,000 to $40,000, including travel. But many parts are donated, and corporate sponsors pick up a large part of the expenses.

There's no limit to how many people can be on a team, but each team is allowed only three students and two mentors in the alliance area behind the playing field during the competition. During the match, students direct the team's robots by remote control. They can also toss balls into a goal if their robot moves the goal close to them.

Bellarmine's robot was often able to grab both goals, one filled with balls, and balance them on the bridge - in about one minute. Finishing so quickly doubled the score. Balancing both goals doubled it again, twice. With other robots placing balls in goals and reaching the end zone, their total scores sometimes exceeded 400.

You can watch for Bellarmine at the nationals, live on NASA TV, a satellite station that is also available on the Web:

Saturday's final will run from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, with portions broadcast (and webcast) by NASA.

If you'd like to join next year's competition, details are available from FIRST's website:

Why NASA wants you to compete

Encouraging students to explore and enjoy robotics is a high priority at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. At the FIRST Southern California Regional Competition last month, 24 of the 49 teams had been awarded scholarships by JPL, which is also paying for three schools to go to the nationals in Florida April 5-7.

NASA's JPL also provided mentor engineers to numerous high schools for the event. Why is JPL so interested in a robot competition for high-schoolers? It needs robotic engineers, and this is a good place to develop them. JPL's mission is to explore outer space, and robots make excellent explorers.

Robots at the FIRST competitions are built to play a game, but many of the tasks they do are similar to those done by working robots. The robotic rovers created by JPL also move around or over obstacles and move objects. But they are designed to do it on moons, other planets, comets, and asteroids.

Sojourner, the Pathfinder robot that landed on Mars in 1997, was similar in many ways to the robots in the FIRST competition. About the size of a child's wagon, Sojourner had six wheels, cameras, and other sensors, and moved over uneven terrain. Now scientists at JPL are experimenting with new types of robot explorers, including tiny "nanorovers" only 20 centimeters (about 8 inches) wide, and inflatable rovers with huge tires. They hope some of the human competitors in the FIRST contests will later join in this research.

Not all robots are space explorers. Many are used to help build cars and do other assembly-line work. Robots perform repetitive or dangerous tasks, too - even some distasteful ones, like cleaning out sewers. Space exploration is probably one of the most interesting uses for a robot -except for winning robot competitions here on earth.

You can check out robotic science and the robots being developed by JPL at their website:

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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