Homemade, soccer-playing robots compete for trip to Atlanta

The Boston regional FIRST Robotics competition will send five teams to the championship in April

Cheering crowds packed into Boston University's Agganis Arena over the weekend not for a rock concert or sporting event, but for a robotics competition. More than 50 teams from across the Northeast U.S. and three other countries brought homemade robots to compete in the Boston regional FIRST robotics competition. To watch a video report from the event, click here.

"We have an event here that really takes the excitement of an athletic competition, energy of a rock concert, and combines it with science and technology using robots," said Marc Hodosh, chairman of the Boston FIRST regional and also president of TEDMED.

FIRST, which stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, was founded by Segway inventor Dean Kamen in 1989.

In this year's competition, the robots played a game of soccer and earned points for scoring goals. The field measured 27 feet by 54 feet and contained several soccer balls, goals and various obstacles and obstructions.

Six teams competed in every round, three on the red alliance and three on the blue alliance. The alliances work together to score points.

The first 15 seconds of every round was autonomous, meaning that the robots functioned on their own without human control. During the next two minutes, students controlled the robots and tried to score goals. In the final seconds of each round, the robots attempted to hang above the field. Each ball scored got one point, each robot hanging above the field at the end of the round earned two points, and if a robot was hanging from another robot, the alliance was awarded three points.

In January, the students received a kit of parts and used them to build their own unique robots.

"And these kids have six weeks to build these really sophisticated, large, 100-pound robots," said Hodosh.

The students soldered and pieced together the hardware, but also programmed the software, which was especially important for the 15-second autonomous section of each match. Once the students took control of the robots, they used joysticks and laptops to direct the 'bots. The students also needed to position the robots and control their kicking mechanisms.

"We all get really involved in building the robot," said Blake Bourque with Team Infinite Loop from Oakland, Maine. Having been on the team for four years, he said he enjoys helping the younger students understand "that this system works with this system and all that fun stuff."

Hodosh said one of the goals of FIRST is to naturally interest students in science and technology so that the U.S. can stay competitive with the rest of the world. "We need engineers, we need scientists much more so than we may need extra athletes and extra entertainers."

And if the Boston competition was any indication, that goal has been met. Before entering the program, student Woodrow Shattuck from Berlin, Connecticut's Team Techno-Nuts said that he had no intention of pursuing an engineering career, but now he said, "I'm pretty sure I'm going to some sort of engineering college."

The high school teams are typically advised by a teacher, but also have help from full-time engineers from major companies, many of which sponsor teams.

The atmosphere of the competition was very lively, with pop music playing throughout the arena accented by cheers and screams when the robots scored. The teams even had mascots, one in a human-sized eagle costume, roaming the floor. The team on which Shattuck played, the Techno-Nuts, wore large, plush bolts on their heads.

"I love it because I'm a nerd and I really get a kick out of this engineering stuff," said Blair Lichtenstein of Team Robo-Rebels from Walpole, Massachusetts. "It teaches you a lot of stuff you don't learn in school."

Five teams from the Boston regional will advance to the FIRST Championship in Atlanta from April 15-17.

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