Building Robots at School

September 11, 2008

The FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC)

Filed under: FRC,Robotics Competitions — dtengineering @ 6:27 am

This is easily the most expensive… and most amazing… high school robotics competition around.  It has been going for over 15 years, and we have competed in it for the past five.  As with most robotics competitions, the game changes from year to year, so that even experienced teams face new challenges.  On the last Saturday of Christmas holidays FIRST hosts a kickoff, webcast on NASA TV, and describes the rules for the upcoming season, as well as what components are included in “the kit of parts”.  Teams then have just six weeks to design, build, program, and test their robot before packing it in to a shipping crate and sending it off to a regional competition.  There are over 30 regionals around the world, including Brazil, Israel and New Zealand, but most are in the USA.  The nearest regional competitions to Vancouver are in Portland and Seattle (yes, and Hawaii, for those who like palm trees), the nearest Canadian regionals are in Waterloo and Toronto.)   A team then travels to the three-day regional competition, and has a practice day on Thursday, round-robin competition on Friday and on Saturday morning, and elimination rounds on Saturday afternoon.  Everything about this competition is HUGE.  The robots start out five feet tall and grow from there.  They weigh 150 pounds.  Competitions are often webcast live (on Discovery Channel in Canada, on NASA TV in the USA) draw teams from thousands of kilometers away and take place in large gymasisums, hockey rinks… even the 17,000 seat Key Arena in Seattle.  It is not uncommon to see a crowd of several thousand people watching the finals of a regional event.  This year FRC is experimenting with a new competition structure in Michigan, and introducing a new robot control system based on the National Instruments cRio series of controllers.

FRC is expensive.  Entry fees are $6000 US for the first regional event, and $4,000 for each additional regional.  Teams should budget another $1,000 for additional parts for their robot above and beyond the “kit of parts”, although an extra $2,000 is nice if you’ve got it.  Travel expenses are on top of that, although the addition of the Seattle regional last year has significantly cut travel costs for BC teams that used to fly to Toronto or California to compete.  While most teams put forward competitive efforts on budgets of $10,000 or less, there are teams that have built their fundraising over the years to the point where they can spend much, much more than this, but since rules limit how much can actually be spent on the robot, most of that goes in to travelling to multiple regionals and off-season events.

While FRC is expensive, you do get a LOT in FRC.  The kit of parts (or “KOP” in acronym land) is quite extensive, including motors, speed controllers, pneumatics, software (Autodesk Inventor, 3DS Max, and others) and a standardized control system.  Aside from limits on the control system (for safety) and motors (so the big-budget teams can’t just outpower everyone else) you can pretty much build what you want within the parameters of the competition.  FRC also scales very nicely in terms of the number of students that can be on a team… we’ve had between 11 and 36 students on a team, and there is almost always something for people to do.  Although the robot might be the core of FRC, there are website competitions (check out our site… we won in Seattle!) animation competitions, awards for the best business plan, best CAD design work, etc.  The very top award at a FIRST Regional, The Chairman’s Award, goes to a team that has done the most for their community over the years.  There is plenty of opportunity for non-technical people to become involved… in fact our team wouldn’t exist without their efforts!

What do you need other than generous sponsorship and between 6-60 robot crazy students to take part in FRC?  You need a way to build a robot in six weeks in January and February.  Technical mentors, adults who have useful skills in design and fabrication and enjoy sharing those skills with students are extremely valuable, and so are non-technical mentors who can help organize travel, budgets, and all those crucial business/communications/teamwork tasks that make teams really stand out.  Access to a shop, or at least a fairly large workspace and a good selection of hand and power tools is key.  At our school, we run the team as a club, so this means that we work between 3:30-8:30 four days each week, stepping it up to 3:30-9:30 five days a week (and the occasional weekend) if we run behind schedule.  Every year, some point around Valentine’s Day, when things aren’t going right and I haven’t been home for dinner in a month, I promise myself (and my co-dependent colleagues, Pat and Gregg) that I’ll never, ever do this project again.  Then we get to the competitions and the pain of build season is forgotten. 

FRC is definitely the “big leagues” of high school robotics.  Nothing else comes close.  Until you go to a regional and see it yourself, you won’t believe just how cool it really is.  I’ve been to almost a dozen regionals, and thought I was getting a handle on how amazing it was… then I went to the Championships and have to come up with all new superlatives to describe this competition and the amazing people behind it.  YES, it IS THAT GOOD.

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