Robotics Competition

Background Information About FIRST Robotics (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology)

Headline: Wissahickon's Robotics Team Wins Regional Championship
March 29, 2008

Drexel, University City, Philadelphia, PA --
The Wissahickon Robotics Team came in first place at regionals on Saturday. They also won the prestigious "Chairman's Award". It was one of the most exciting competitions ever seen!

What is a robotics competition?

Part I

It's not exactly Robo-wars. The robots don't battle each other to death, or at least, that is not the intention. But still, a F.I.R.S.T. robotics competition can be even more exciting than Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots or Robo-wars.

How do you play?
A first time spectator of a F.I.R.S.T event often will say something like, "What the heck is going on here?" There are people running around all over the place dressed in strange attire. Team spirit runs so deep you can't help but to soak it in. Groups of people dress in similar strange attire and gather in the stands yelling, screaming and chanting... at robots competing on a field.

Then, people tend to ask questions, such as, "What the heck are those robots doing?" A typical response might be, "Trying to score points." This usually doesn't satisfy their curiosity, rather it evokes even more questions, "How do you score points? How many points is that worth? Who is driving? What do you mean autonomous mode? How are teams made up?"

Well, to understand the game, it sort-of helps to step back and take in a wider view. Because high schools from around the world compete in seasons that overlap school years, it's easier to get the picture by looking at more than one school year.

For instance, you could look at the school years 2006-2007, 2007-2008 and 2008-2009. Each season has a new challenge. The 2007 challenge was to build a robot that could do particular tasks with an inner tube. The national championships were in April of 2007. Then, to get the 2007-2008 school year started, there are a couple of events that use the previous season's robots and rules. Since these events come "post" championships and "pre" the new rules, they are referred to as "off-season".

So, if you were a freshman in 2006-2007, you started your sophomore year's competitions with the inner tube rules and robot. Later in the school year, you are given a new set of rules followed by six weeks to build a new robot. The 2008 challenge involved building a robot to do certain tasks with a giant ball. The 2008 national championships will be held in the spring of 2008. As a junior, you would then start the 2008-2009 school year with the 2008 rules. Once again, new rules will be issued by F.I.R.S.T. in January 2009 and a 6 six week build season will follow.

Wissahickon's 2007-2008 Season

Duel on the Delaware
This year's robotics team started competing at:
The "Duel on the Delaware"
FIRST Robotics Competition
October 13, 2007
Salem Community College, Carney's Point, NJ

The Duel on the Delaware is co-hosted by DuPont-sponsored teams #365 - Miracle Workerz (MOE) and the #316 - LuNaTeCs.

The Wissahickon team did well though they did better at thrilling the audience than winning when their robot caught on fire. You are required to wear safety goggles near the robots... for good reason!

Ramp Riot
In November of 2007, the Wissahckon High School hosted Ramp Riot in the schools Circle Gym, which is located outside of Ambler in Montgomery County, PA. High schools from across Northeastern United States competed at this year's Ramp Riot. Originally, Ramp Riot was a rather small event. Now, with 36 teams competing, it has grown into one of the country's largest off-season events. Hosting and competing is a nice way for the new class of students to get right into the thick of things. This year over 2,500 people attended the multi-day event. Representatives from F.I.R.S.T., NASA and the school combined to pull off this extravaganza.

Movie Stars
It was around this time that a film crew started following the Wissahickon robot, Team 341 Miss v Daisy. SD Digital Creations created a movie script based on Miss Daisy. The production is intended to be released to hundreds of theaters worldwide. Not long after, the team was approached for yet another media production. PBS (the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) and Story House Productions teamed together for a two hour long documentary.

[This is the part where we get to -- "How do you play?"]

Up to this point in the 2007-2008 school year, the Wissahickon Robotics Team had still been working with last year's model. This article was intended to be about the team winning this year's regional championship. However, it is difficult to convey the meaning... the feeling... without understanding the season and how the game is played. When Miss Daisy came in first place at regionals, men were crying. After all, what kind-of game would cause grown men to cry in public? In front of film crews? Over a robot named Miss Daisy?

Part II: How The Game Is Played

Each January the robotics teams are notified by the F.I.R.S.T. organization of the new season's game. The teams then have six weeks to build their robot. After that, the robots are put in crates and shipped to the various competitions. The only time the teams have access to their robots are at the competitions.

To get an idea of how the games are invented, it helps to know a few things about FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). First, FIRST was founded by Dean Kamen. Who is Dean? After learning about him, you'd think he would be a household name. Well, to thousands of kids, he is! The last time I saw Dean there was a long line of autograph seekers.

Dean is many things including an inventor. 1 Have you ever seen people riding on those strange looking upright scooter thingies, The Segway? That is one of Dean's inventions. That's right. Dean invented the Segway Human Transporter, as well as, the first wearable drug infusion pump, the first portable insulin pump, the first portable kidney dialysis machine, the Crown Stent designed for Johnson & Johnson, and the Independence IBOT Transporter (wheelchair that climbs stairs, rough terrain and balances the rider upright at eye level). One of his new projects is a water purification system being designed to help provide clean drinking water to an estimated 1.1 billion people lacking potable water.

"His passion and determination to help young people discover the excitement and rewards of science and technology are the cornerstones of FIRST." He has a vision "to create a world where science and technology are celebrated... where young people dream of becoming science and technology heroes ...."2

On more than one occasion, Dean has succeeded. At the 2008 regionals held at Drexel, the thrill of being such heroes was evident when people cried tears of happiness over Wissahickon's victory. Another example was at the 2006 world championships. A man came out on stage in a wheelchair. Unbeknown to the crowd, the wheelchair was an Independence IBOT Transporter. The gentleman rolled over to Dean and the chair stood the man up so they were eye to eye. When the man thanked Dean for giving him this ability... for providing this humane treatment... the crowd was brought to tears. What more can be said about a man who has brought so many tears of JOY to the world?

And, is Dean a superb showman? A while back, when he was in middle school, he invented a light box that could be plugged into a stereo and pulsed to the music. As soon as he was old enough to drive, he got a job in New York city and ended up at the Museum of Natural History. He attempted to show his light show to the chairman but was thrown out.

"That provoked Kamen. For the next couple of weeks, he worked day and night in his basement, designing a light show. Then he used his pass to enter the museum and wired his box into the planetarium's light system. Just like that. He found the chairman and gave him the news. "You've done what?" asked the chairman.

Before he could be thrown out, Kamen convinced him to have a look. When Kamen flipped the switch, the rotunda burst into illumination. The chairman looked around slowly, then invited Kamen to his office and asked: "How much would this system cost the museum?"

Kamen was a kid. It seemed to him that his whole future depended on his answer, because he had quit his summer job and risked all his earnings. Working in the basement, he had dreamed about pocketing the immense sum of $US1000. So he swallowed hard and asked for twice that much.

The chairman walked around his desk. On one condition, he said: Kamen had to do the same thing for the other three museums under the chairman's care. Four museums for $US8000. Kamen's gamble had paid off. By the time he graduated from high school, he was selling light boxes to local rock bands and building customized audiovisual presentations that synchronized multiple slide projectors." 3

Needless to say, Dean knows how to put on a good show. Or, maybe it should be said, Dean knows how to put on a really, really good show! That is exactly what spectators of FIRST events experience.

The inventing of each season's game takes all these components into consideration. Dean, other members of the FIRST organization, and participants from NASA invent a new game. Then, the teams go into "build season." The six week build season is extremely demanding of the youth. Many of these young adults put in 3, 5, or even 8 hours, after school. In addition, they still need to do their homework. Often, their work is not done until after midnight.

Building the robots is no child's play. The kids need access to a well outfitted machine shop. The robot is built from scratch. Safety is always a top concern. Drills, lathes, grinders, and such, are put to the test. Different sub-teams are formed to handle design, CAD, audio-visual, drive, and even team spirit building. Parents volunteer to help with things like providing meals so that the students can work right through dinner. The build season is intense.

In prior years, examples of feats the robots had to perform included maneuvering over a variety of ramps, shooting basketball sized balls through goals, and placing inner tubes on racks. The games are given unique names, such as, Ramp And Roll, Aim High, and Rack 'N' Roll. The 2008 game, Overdrive, is loosely based on NASCAR racing combined with giant ball hurdling.

Here are the 2008 Game Rules:
The Game // Miss Daisy VII [2008] // "FIRST Overdrive" 4

The field for FIRST Overdrive consists of a circular 'track' created by dividing the field down the middle lengthwise with a tall metal separator. Across the middle of the narrow dimension of the field runs an overhead track where large balls called 'trackballs' sit at the beginning of each round.

Two alliances, red and blue, composed of three teams each, compete in a 2 minute and 15 second long match. The object of each match is to score more points than your opponent by making counter-clockwise laps and manipulating the ball in different ways while making laps.

A match is divided into two periods. The first, the 'hybrid period,' (also known as "autonomous mode") is 15 seconds long and is at the start of each match. During this period robots can be controlled by pre-programmed instructions and/or transmitted information via remote from a 'robocoach,' or human player. The second period, the 'teleoperated period,' is 2 minutes in length. During this period human drivers are in full control of their robots. (Note: the human drivers control the robot remotely. Standing behind a protective shield, the driver uses remote control joysticks.)

Alliance robots start catty-corner to each other on the field and must all be touching the wall of their respective end. Robots can only handle one trackball at a time and may not impede the flow of traffic on the track. Robots are also not allowed to aggressively go after their opponent's bots and are especially restricted from preventing a robot from hurdling if that robot has already started the process of doing so.

Scoring is broken down as follows:
Hybrid Period
Robot crosses a lane marker (there are 2 on each end of the field): 4 points
Robot crosses opponent finish line: 4 points
Robot crosses alliance finish line: 4 points
Trackball removed from overpass: 8 points
Trackball crosses alliance finish line under overpass: 2 points
Trackball hurdles alliance overpass: 8 points

Teleoperated Period
Robot crosses alliance finish line: 2 points
Trackball crosses alliance finish line under overpass: 2 points
Trackball hurdles alliance overpass: 8 points
Trackball is on overpass at end of match: 12 points

Part III: The Fierce Competition

This brings us to what was quite possibly one of the most exciting competitions of all time, the 2008 FIRST Robotics Philadelphia Regional. There have been lots of great events throughout history. If you enjoy football, watching players from the Penn State Nittnay Lions win the national championships, then go on to become Super Bowl winning Pittsburgh Steelers, might help you relate to this robotics competition. Perhaps you've been to the Olympics? That, too, might come close, but it still wouldn't exceed the thrill of this competition.

Forty-four teams from the Mid-Atlantic and New England regions of the United States of America gathered at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA. Big name sponsors, including NASA, BAE Systems, Johnson & Johnson, Bristal Myers Squibb, DuPont, Siemon, Lockheed Martin, Intel, Motorola, and Sun Chemical, had robots competing.

Not only was the playing field and pit packed to the max., the fans overflowed from the stands.

They started coming on Thursday. Friday the seeding matches started and continued into Saturday. By noon on Saturday, the noise level reached a fevered pitch as the space turned to "standing room only."

Quarter-finals began at 1:00 PM. It's interesting to watch the schools form alliances. Since a match consists of 3 schools against 3 schools, each school's team must decide who they want to be on their 3 team alliance. A team that is on your alliance in the quarter-finals might be on the opposing alliance for the semi-finals, and so on.

The Wissahickon team was strong through the quarter-finals making it to the semi-finals. The intensity was kicked up a notch for the semi-finals. For a while, it was questionable whether Wissahickon's Miss Daisy would even make it to the finals. In fact, during one match Daisy went haywire, and the rest of the team had to chant "shut her down" so she wouldn't interfere with the rest of the alliance.

The pit crew was able to pull it all together for the finals. Wissahickon (team 341) teamed up with Towanda, PA's team 84 robot, Chuck, and Wilmington, DE's team 365, MOE. Together these three teams formed one heck of an alliance. It was no cakewalk, though. The alliance lost a match. Then, to make things even more nerve racking there was a tie. However, Daisy, Chuck and MOE gave it a real go. Their splendid cooperation sent them over the top to win the competition.

Just when you thought it couldn't possibly get any more exciting, the awards ceremony made dreams come true. The most prestigious award is the Chairman's Award. No one expected it, but that's when it happened -- "The Chairman's Award goes to team 341's Miss Daisy."

Nothing could make Dean Kamen's vision of science and technology heroes more complete than taking home both first place at regionals and the Chairman's Award. Indeed, these kids are true heroes in every sense of the word. Hopefully, the FIRST organization will come to know of their appreciation... their gratitude... their heart felt THANKS!

Next, Wissahickon travels to Atlanta, GA and the Georgia Dome for the world championships.

Postlude: Gracious Professionalism

An aspect of this competition that propelled it to one of the most spectacular events of all times was the level of sportsmanship. Unfortunately, it's all to common in modern sports for teams and players to display poor sportsmanship. That is not the case at a FIRST event. These kids behaved like outstanding adults when it came to gracious professionalism. When a team was eliminated from the quarter-finals they didn't cry and pout. To the contrary, they would invent a motivational chant for the team that had beat them. And, the victorious team would create a chant of thanks to the team they had beaten. It was enough to send a shiver up your spine.

Kudos go out to FIRST for instilling their credo 5:

"Dr. Woodie Flowers, FIRST National Advisor and Pappalardo Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, coined the term "Gracious Professionalism."

Gracious Professionalism is part of the ethos of FIRST. It's a way of doing things that encourages high-quality work, emphasizes the value of others, and respects individuals and the community.

With Gracious Professionalism, fierce competition and mutual gain are not separate notions. Gracious professionals learn and compete like crazy, but treat one another with respect and kindness in the process. They avoid treating anyone like losers. No chest thumping tough talk, but no sticky-sweet platitudes either. Knowledge, competition, and empathy are comfortably blended.

In the long run, Gracious Professionalism is part of pursuing a meaningful life. One can add to society and enjoy the satisfaction of knowing one has acted with integrity and sensitivity."

... stay tuned....


1 No Man Is An Island, Nick Ravo, The New York Times (1988)
2 & 5 FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Website (2008)
3 One Helluva Ride, Steve Kemper, The Sydney Morning Herald (2003)
4 Wissahickon's Team 341 / Miss Daisy Website (2008)

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