My oldest son is in High School this year and jumped at the opportunity to go after Dean Kamen’s FIRST Robotics competition this fall. Steve Jobs gets all the press but Dean Kamen is the guy that is really making differences in the world of tech, revolutionizing medical and health devices in particular but doing a tremendous amount of work in a broad array of subjects. Briefcase sized dialysis machines, wheelchairs that climb stairs, nation-scale water purification systems, the works. One of his more recent efforts is a device designed to launch SWAT teams onto the roofs of buildings (yes, from the ground) utilizing compressed air. This isn’t some socially inept guy that’s working out of his basement with crazy hair, this is a guy that runs his own company of elite engineers with crazy hair. FIRST Robotics is his invention as well, with challenges issued annually to high school students to create autonomous and remote controlled robots to carry out specific tasks, in competition with each other. Mr. Kamen is no fool, he knows where his new employees are going to come from.
This year’s challenge for freshmen and sophomores is to gather loose balls on the playing field and lift them into test tubes as high as 120 centimeters, using a robot that starts the match fitting within a 45 cm box. A solid challenge, made more interesting by some of the additional rules that Mr. Kamen’s team includes into the match. Particularly surprising to me is the inclusion of team play, with partners foisted upon you on short notice. You share each round’s win with another robot, one that will likely be your competition in later rounds. That is, each round you are paired with another bot in the competition, and the two of you compete against another pair in the same position as you.
What has surprised me about this interesting little twist on the competition is how much it factors into your design and build process. The beginning of each round is a 30 second period of autonomous running, the bots kicking off and going after points on their own with no control from the teams. On the field with three other robots, yours has to be able to roll with the punches when others get in the way, something very likely when one of those three is explicitly going after the same things you are. Granted, you get a short period of time ahead of the competition to compare notes and figure out which of you will go after what, but that means reconfiguring your software on short notice, provided you’ve designed enough flexibility into it to pull that off on the day of the competition. It also factors into your decision of which scoring opportunities you want to go after, since limiting yourself to the one or two big ones is the kiss of death if your brand new teammate has done the same. A broader range capabilities will almost assuredly add to your ability to work in concert, something I’m sure Mr. Kamen and his team were well aware of when they designed the concept. You bot needs to have some level of generalist approach in order to manage the chaotic environment it will compete in, something that I very much admire.
There’s a remote-controlled section that follows, and that banner ad you see at the top of the page for Aerial Assault shows a bit of action from the Junior-Senior level of competition where the bots are significantly bigger. Last year’s challenge was to essentially play basketball, throwing one big heavy ball into a goal on one end of the course while the other team is attempting to go in the opposite direction. The video at the beginning of Aerial Assault’s Kickstarter page (http://fortressat.com/component/adagency/adagencyAds/click/171/77/172) shows an interesting part of the action, where one bot throws the ball down the court and the other picks up the pass and finishes with a scoring shot. Keep in mind these are robots designed and built from scratch by high school students, cutting metal and shaping it for custom tasks presented to them just a few weeks before first competition.
Mr. Kamen’s challenge would be sufficient were it to simply create a solid challenge and let robots go after it. But he’s bumped up the competitive aspect of it with the rather unique impromptu teammates mechanic, something that brings fellowship to the competitions as well. Worth a look if you have kids approaching the high school level, there’s likely a team nearby that’s looking for creative ideas.