Way back in 2020, before COVID shut down the world, there was a film crew following a few high school FRC teams heading to the LA Regional FIRST Robotics competition. If you’ve seen More than Robots on Disney+, you’ve seen what was the last in-person competition for these teams before COVID hit.
Last weekend, at the Da Vinci Schools in El Segundo, California, I was privileged to be one of the the judges at the first in-person FRC LA Regional competition since that documentary was filmed.
If you are not familiar with FIRST, it’s an organization founded by Dean Kamen of Segway fame and Woodie Flowers, an MIT professor, back in 1989 to inspire students to pursue science and technology fields.
FIRST stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology”, and it has grown from 28 teams competing in a high school gym in 1992 (the robots were actually operating on wired power while competing!) to nearly 4000 teams all over the world just in the FIRST Robotics Competition, and many more in FIRST’s other competitions for younger students.
At the 2022 LA Regional, I saw 44 teams competing in this year’s game “Rapid React”, in which the robots have to load “cargo” (red or blue basketballs) into high or low cargo hubs, and then put themselves away in “hangars” where they literally hang on bars up off the ground. They can either climb up a series of ever higher bars, or they can just latch on and pull, but the higher they go, the more points they get. The element of competition is strengthened by the fact that some of the robots may go on defense and try to keep the other team’s balls away or block them from shooting.
If you go into one of these events expecting to see humanoid droids, you might be disappointed, but you’d be missing the bigger picture: these robots are designed to be extremely sturdy, versatile, and useful. During the COVID shutdown of FRC, a lot of teams repurposed their robots into delivery systems for PPE and other materials, and many teams used the robots and their components to build projects to help their communities.
In FIRST, the students are learning elements of math, engineering, science, programming, and most importantly, what Woodie Flowers called “coopertition”, where students may be competing, but even more importantly, they are learning as they teach and help each other both within and between the different teams.
They also learn to play to their strengths within teams. Some robots are incredible climbers. Others are amazingly accurate at gathering and launching cargo. Some are strong all-around players, while others specialize in blocking competing robots. The teams create alliances and strategies that best help the entire alliance as well as each individual team. Coopertition. It really works!
Robert Hogg, the founder of Team 980, the ThunderBots, was also one of the judges at this competition, but he’s better known for his helicopter. On Mars. Yep, that one. Robert Hogg is the Deputy Mission Manager for Mars 2020, the mission that landed the Perseverance rover and flew the Ingenuity helicopter. He also spoke to the students at this year’s event and told them something that may sound implausible unless you actually meet the kids participating in FIRST Robotics: one of them may very well be the first person to walk on Mars.
In the coming weeks, we’ll showcase the determination, ingenuity, and creativity of five different teams from the FRC LA Regional.
If you’d like to see the actual event, the videos from the live stream are available on Twitch.