FIRST Robotics Competition: Students Teaching Robots, and Vice Versa

Segway inventor Dean Kamen's annual contest inspires high-school students to build some spectacular robotic athletes.

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Harry McCracken /

A robot climbs a pyramid at the FIRST Robotics Competition's Silicon Valley regional on April 7, 2013

On Saturday, I drove down to the event center at San Jose State University and watched a bunch of squat, wheeled robots compete in a strange game which involved both hurling Frisbee-style discs into slots and climbing up jungle-gym-like pyramids. It was fun. But it was also inspiring — because the robots were designed by teams of high-school students participating in the FIRST Robotics Competition, a contest that’s been going on for 21 years now.

Founded by Segway inventor Dean Kamen, FIRST stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” and its goal is to get young people excited about becoming leaders in science and technology. The competition, which attracts thousands of teams from around the world, gives students a challenge (this year’s was “Ultimate Ascent,” the flying-disc-and-pyramid game) and six weeks to build a robot to participate in it. What I watched was the Silicon Valley Regional, which attracted more than sixty teams, mostly from Northern California but also from Oregon, Texas, Florida and Mexico. Among the sponsors: both Google and the Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki Foundation, founded by Google’s cofounder and his wife.

Here’s a bit of video I shot of the competition in progress. (Teams get grouped into alliances, and Ultimate Ascent is played with two alliances of three robots apiece.)


(That robot getting knocked over was an accident, not intentional robot-on-robot violence — this is not BattleBots, and encouraging “gracious professionalism” is one of FIRST’s defining goals.)

Play was divided into three parts. First, robots tried to shoot discs into the slots autonomously. Then the teams remote-controlled their robots around the playing field to shoot additional discs. Then the remote-controlled robots tried to hoist themselves up the pyramids. (That was a particularly difficult tasks — I saw many bots fail to get very far at it, and some were designed only for the disc-shooting aspect of the contest.)

Here are members of one team tending to a robot in the NASCAR-like pit next to the playing field:

[image] FIRST Robotics Competition

Harry McCracken /

And here are some of the thousands of spectators, including parents, siblings, mentors, friends and other interested parties:

[image] FIRST Robotics Competition

Harry McCracken /

Can getting kids interested in competitive invention of this sort encourage them to pursue technical careers? The answer is clearly yes. At the Silicon Valley regional, I met a FIRST mentor who entered the Robotics Competition when he was a high school student in Michigan. His name is Anand Atreya, and today he’s a robotics researcher at Stanford and the cofounder of a company, WiFiSlam, which was in the news last month when it was acquired by Apple.

This year’s FIRST Robotics Competition championship will be in St. Louis on April 25-27. FIRST also conducts similar contests for younger students: the FIRST Lego League and Junior FIRST Lego League. My personal engineering abilities never progressed much beyond the Pinewood Derby level, but I’m still sorry this wasn’t around when I was a student.