Race to St. Louis: Regional Robot Battles Set Scene of FIRST Competition

by Will Park

What does it take for a high schooler to build a competitive robot?

Space Cookies robot at FIRST Silicon Valley Regional
Space Cookies robot at FIRST Silicon Valley Regional

Moxie. Brainstorming. And a kit of common parts, for starters.

High school students from around the world are gearing up to showcase their innovative builds for the FIRST Robotics Competition, held in St. Louis, Mo., April 22-25. But the work that went into their robots started many, many months ago.

Students and their engineer mentors brainstorm efficient building methods throughout the year. By the time the kits from For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, or FIRST, arrive in January, everyone is buzzing with ideas.

Collaboration and competition are at the heart of FIRST. Students problem solve from the get go, relying on mentors and one another, as they learn to use sophisticated software and hardware.

Their goal: to reach the World Championship in St. Louis, where $20 million in college scholarships is at stake.

The competition run by FIRST, a nonprofit founded more than two decades ago by Segway inventor Dean Kamen, is designed to drive student interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, known as STEM.

Six-Week Countdown

Recycle Rush competition at Silicon Valley Regional
Recycle Rush competition at Silicon Valley Regional

Once the kits arrive, it’s a six-week countdown to strategize, design, and build a wirelessly controlled bot weighing up to 120 pounds. By mid-March, students have to “tag and bag” their bots and await the regional competitions.

The robots must be able to complete various tasks in a themed game, such as scoring balls into goals, or placing inner tubes on racks. This year’s theme, Recycle Rush, involves stacking containers and recycling cans in scoring areas and filling them with foam “litter.”

Teams test their bots in every conceivable way to prepare for the grueling regional competitions. While each starter kit is the same, teams can “hack” their robots with other gear as long as it meets FIRST guidelines. At the regional competitions, robots are “unbagged,” allowing students eight hours to make updates and fixes.

Regional Games of Reckoning

More than 3,000 teams comprising 75,000 high school students compete. The first battles play out in almost 60 regional events.

NVIDIA is sponsoring nine schools this year, including ones from Israel, Detroit and several local to Silicon Valley. Among these, Presentation Invasion, from San Jose’s all-girl Presentation High School, used our K600 GPUs in its robot build.

Space Cookies work on their robot Silicon Valley Regional
Space Cookies work on their robot at Silicon Valley Regional

Three teams have already secured spots at the championship in St. Louis.

One of them, Space Cookies, an all-girl robotics team also sponsored by Girl Scouts of Northern California and NASA, won the prestigious Chairman’s Award at the FIRST Robotics Competition in San Antonio.

Another, WarriorBorgs, took home the Chairman’s Award at the Silicon Valley Regional, where it also garnered individual awards for showing leadership in science learning and in safety practices.

And a third, Spartan Robotics, from Mountain View High School, also competed in the Silicon Valley Regional. It earned a wildcard place in the championship and received an award for excellence in engineering.

Along with the games, there’s some fun.

Competitors dye their hair crazy colors to match their team t-shirts. Silly mascots dangle in robot “work pits.” And then there are the decorations.

Red lanterns sway in the booth hosted by a team from China, rivaling the palm fronds and tropical flowers wreathing the Hawaii team’s booth.

Box of pins at FIRST Robotics Silicon Valley Regional
Box of pins at FIRST Robotics Silicon Valley Regional

Most popular of all are the commemorative pins branded with logos offered by each team. By the end of the event, students sport t-shirts covered with pins from their rivals. It’s a fun way to kick back before the brainstorming for next year begins.

Here’s a video NVIDIA submitted to FIRST, which you can vote on. The video with the most votes will be shown on a jumbotron in the stadium in St. Louis, where the championship is being hosted.