Robotic adventures at the FIRST competition

Popular Science attends New York's high-school robot showdown and sees celebrities, breakdowns, and mechanical lunacy.
A homemade robot at the 2009 FIRST Robotics Competition in New York City.
Stuyvesant High School's robot, ready in its corner. Paul Gleason

Day One

It’s Friday morning, March 6, not even 8 a.m. High school students in color-coordinated outfits stand at ease under the high ceiling of the Javits Center, waiting for the New York City’s FIRST Robotics Competition to begin. Over the next three days, 66 teams will vie for the regional crown and spots in the national tournament, held in the Georgia Dome come April. Some of the schools have mascots. One team’s red dragon boogies back and forth in front of another team’s Darth Vader. Darth brandishes his light saber.

Founded in 1992, FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) has grown from a single New Hampshire gymnasium to more than 40 regional competitions. There are regionals all across the country (and another in Tel Aviv). FIRST has nearly 1,700 teams, some with as few as 10 members and others with more than a hundred. A few mentors—alums, teachers, or professional engineers—advise each team. Months ago, each team received a package of basic parts and a rule booklet 130 pages thick. They then had six short weeks to design, build, test, and finally ship their robots.

The main hall of the Javits Center is airport-hangar huge. Rows and rows of bleachers flank what looks like a miniaturized hockey rink with slick white plastic instead of ice. Behind the rink hang an enormous video screen and a tall black curtain. Behind them, more than 60 robots, each ensconced in a big wooden crate. The “pit,” as this area is called, feels oddly calm and empty. Two students from Long Island’s Hauppauge High, Mike Morales and Nolan Conway, struggle to extricate their robot, but are eager to talk about it once they have.

It is three-tiered and about 5 feet tall, with clear plastic sides and black netting in back. Its robotic guts are on the first level, protected all the way around by a blue bumper. The second level is empty, and the top has a wide, winged piece of metal that can pop up and forward. They joined FIRST after several years in a battlebots league, tired of rebuilding their robot after every match. FIRST, says Conway, is “more nonviolent.”

Every year, he continues, FIRST invents a new game. This year’s is “Lunacy,” a name meant to invoke both crazy fun and the moon. (The plastic playing field apparently simulates low gravity.) Each game includes six teams divided into two alliances. A team scores when it drops its “moon rocks” (slightly fuzzy orange and purple spheres) into another robot’s trailer. Moon rocks are worth two points apiece. Teams send four human players to the field. The two “pilots” control their robot as it chases enemies around the rink, or “crater.” The payload specialist lobs moon rocks at opposing trailers from the sidelines. The “commander” shouts orders at everybody else.

By now, everyone else has un-crated their robots, too, and the pit is getting crowded. There is a team of Brits with a big Union Jack and a cardboard box marked “rubbish.” A group of Brazilians has papered its crate with Portuguese news stories (subject: them). Otherwise, the pit is full of teams from the tri-state area, all with terrific names: The Mechanical Marauders, Skillz Tech, G-House Pirates, Pope John Robotics, Robotic Plague, Saunders Droid Factory, and Nerds with Attitude. The Bronx High School of Science has two teams: the co-ed SciBorgs and all-girl Fe Maidens (a founding member was into heavy metal). Stuyvesant High School has painted its robot with evil-looking red eyes and sharp, red-tinted teeth. Another team, from Herbert H. Lehman high school, flies a banner with a motto out of an old B-movie: “It came from the Bronx!” Over the loudspeaker, a slow, matronly voice reminds everyone in the pit to please wear protective goggles.

The RoboWarriors from Warren, New Jersey, are defending regional champs, and look the part. They’ve erected a tall entryway in front of their workspace. It proudly displays their name, coat of arms (a shield with white and blue interlocking gears), and dual Samsung flat screens. The TVs show technical specs for the RoboWarrior itself (“Selene”) and pictures of team members, who lean back in mock-thuggish poses, arms across their chests. The TVs also play game footage. In it, the blue Selene—whose tall, slender midsection and roughly triangular head give her a snaky look—hunts down her prey and bombards it with moon rocks from a high turret. Despite their intimidating setup, the team is surprisingly friendly. They crowd around excitedly (the words Popular Science work like an Old West supper bell all weekend long) and describe their high school’s tiny machine shop and how last year was all about precision but this year is all about quantity and how they had problems with Selene’s cannon at the New Jersey Regional but replaced it last week with a simple dumper.

Two robots next to each other in an arena in front of a crowd at the 2009 FIRST Robotics Competition in New York City.
Selene, the RoboWarriors’ robot, in the crater. Paul Gleason

They lost the New Jersey regional to Team Overdrive, a group of 10 local Christian home school students. This is technically their rookie season in FIRST’s top division, but several of them have competed in engineering contests for years. The students seem reluctant to talk at first, but one of their mentors, Tom Moser, says the team’s goal is to help home schooled kids get the scientific education they normally lack. He happily claims he has no idea how to turn the robot on. For weeks, says Kenny Shotyk, a freshman who picked up machining from an older teammate and 24 hours of instructional video, this was all Team Overdrive did. They worked six days a week, from two in the afternoon until late at night, in a two-and-a-half car garage. They followed the precept of K.I.S.S. Not, it turns out, an allusion to another great hair band, but an acronym meaning “keep it simple and stupid.”

Practice rounds are supposed to begin around 11 a.m., but most of the robots still need to pass a judge’s inspection. Over the loudspeaker, an announcer pleads: “Once again, if your robot is alive and well, take it to the field now!” Six teams eventually arrive, and the first game begins.

At first, after an electronic trumpet blasts the familiar “charge!” theme, it’s a blur of flying moon rocks and crashing metal. The evil-eyed robot from Stuyvesant tailgates the Brazilians and unloads five or six moon rocks into their trailer. The Brits can’t seem to fire. Stuyvesant catches the Brazilians again. After two bewildering minutes, the judges tally points and declare a winner.

Practice matches continue until after six in the evening. The game slowly starts to make sense, and, after weeks of careful design, what does and doesn’t work is clear by the end of the day. Teams with robots that dump moon rocks do well. Teams that try to shoot them, out of cannons for instance, are in trouble. They can’t score in bunches. It is also enormously important to be able to reload, to pick up and fire the stray moon rocks that roll around the crater after missing their first target. The RoboWarriors and Team Overdrive can. Hauppauge can’t. Ben Wasser, a thinly-bearded four-year veteran of the RoboWarriors, thinks one of four robots will probably win: his, Overdrive’s, Stuyvesant’s, or another New Jersey robot named Robbe. In terms of their basic designs, these robots all work a lot alike.

Day Two

A crowd of students and robots at the 2009 FIRST Robotics Competition in New York City.
Mascots line up for the parade. Paul Gleason

Saturday morning, March 7, begins with the official mascot parade. Darth and the red dragon are back, along with an X-wing pilot, a stormtrooper, a boy in a half-snail half-tank suit, and dozens of other students carrying banners or wearing their school flags like capes. In addition to their Union Jack flag, the British team wears novelty Union Jack hard hats. The Union Jack waistcoats, one promises, will come later. (It turns out he’s not kidding.) As the mascots precess around the field, their teammates and parents cheer and whoop from the bleachers.

The lights dim, and the huge screen over the field plays a message from FIRST’s founder Dean Kamen and board chairman Woodie Flowers, an emeritus professor of engineering at MIT with a white moustache and ponytail. In 1960, they say, JFK challenged America to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. In 1969, when Apollo 11 completed its mission, the average age of a NASA engineer was 26. That means, they pointedly infer, the young engineers heard JFK’s speech when they were 18. Kamen and Flowers then fast-forward to the present, and jab at the banking and real-estate industries for making money off of money instead of scientific innovation. They tell the students to keep working hard; no one’s going to bail out their educations.

After that, six teams make their final inspections while a bouncy MC with flowers in her hair, pink and blue, trots onto the field. Each team gets an introduction (names, hometowns, and sponsors), and the qualifying rounds begin.

Teams will play seven matches with random allies in each. These qualifiers will last all day and continue tomorrow morning. At the end of the qualifiers, the top eight teams get to pick their allies and a knock-out tournament determines the regional champion.

Shortly before ten o’clock, the RoboWarriors have a rematch with Team Overdrive. As Moser promised, Overdrive’s design is simple. It looks like a big Z, with an open-fronted base, a wide diagonal conveyor belt, and a clear hopper on top. The conveyor belt scoops up moon rocks, and a lift in the hopper tips them back out. It is anything but stupid, however. Its single-minded focus on gathering and dumping as many moon rocks as possible looks smart as it unloads on the RoboWarriors’ trailer. One of the other robots in Overdrive’s alliance doesn’t work, though, making it an easy target. At the end of the two-minute match the RoboWarriors’ alliance wins by eight points (a mere four moon rocks).

The RoboWarriors’ Ben Wasser points out that this is Overdrive’s first loss of the year—at last week’s New Jersey regional they went undefeated, upsetting his team in the process. Wasser feels responsible for that. He had insisted on equipping their robot with a cannon instead of a hopper, thinking that precision would trump volume. Overdrive’s win proved him wrong, and he recalls standing next to their robot at the awards ceremony, looking at it and thinking this is so simple. While the ceremony continued around them, he and a teammate drew up a new design. They built their hopper in a day with measurements from a 3D computer model rather than the actual robot, which had already been boxed and shipped to the Javits Center. So far it’s working well.

Other teams make repairs or adjustments between matches, and the action in the pit is as furious as the action on the field. The robots frequently malfunction, and teams don’t have long to figure out what went wrong before they’re due for another round. Shortly before the lunch break, Overdrive’s conveyor belt stops turning in the middle of a match. They spend the final minute knocking the other alliance’s robots around the rink, content to wreak havoc on anyone who tries to score on them. Afterwards they rush their robot back to the pit, where the mentors scatter as the students go to work. They quickly spot the problem: the lift that drops the moon rocks out of their hopper was working mechanically but not electronically. The conveyer belt doesn’t run when the lift is engaged, and the lift, despite being down, sent signals claiming it was up. The team finishes its repairs in plenty of time for their 2 p.m. match, and wins it easily.

Hauppauge High School is also having trouble. They beat a rival Long Island school in their first match, but haven’t done very well since. Adult mentors tinker with the robot while Nolan Conway stands to the side, watching. A few of the other students are playing video games. This year’s team settled on a more defensive design, he says, one that tries to take the other alliance’s best robot out of the game by pinning it against a wall.

In past years, top teams often drafted a defensive robot with their last pick, says Simon Strauss, a college student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who mentors both of the teams from the Bronx High School of Science. Two years ago, when he was a student at Bronx Science, his robot sacrificed speed for torque and kept a low center of gravity. In order to score that year, robots had to reach up and slip inflatable tires onto a swinging rack in the middle of the field. He fondly remembers bullying teams—including a previous national champion and the team that went on to win that year—away from their target. But this year, he concedes, there’s little reason to have a totally defensive design.

In games with more defense, says Strauss, two or three basic designs can work well. This year, basically, the better a robot scoops and dumps moon rocks, the more effective it is. The simpler rules and bigger roles for human players, Strauss says, are also intended to close the gap between teams that can raise up to $10,000 dollars for their team and those that can’t. Many teams look for private funding and, like NASCAR drivers, cover their robots with corporate logos (in Bronx Science’s case, Con Edison and Snapple).

One of the last matches of the day pits the Bronx Science SciBorgs against Overdrive. Bronx Science is allied with the Robotic Plague from Staten Island, who wear white, black, and gray camo T-shirts with a yellow radiation sign on the chest. They are both at the top of the standings, and Overdrive, which says its allies are among the weaker robots at the regional, doesn’t like its chances.

Several robots in an arena in front of a crowd at the 2009 FIRST Robotics Competition in New York City.
Moments before the SciBorg-Overdrive collision. Paul Gleason

The match opens with the SciBorgs and Overdrive rushing out and crashing into each other in the center of the field. They pause for a moment before Strauss’s robot rams Overdrive back into a wall. “Oh, yeah!” Strauss shouts. The SciBorgs and Robotic Plague have clearly worked out tactics beforehand. Whenever possible, the SciBorgs collide with Overdrive head-on. With Overdrive at a dead stop, the Robotic Plague flanks their trailer and fills it with moon rocks. This tactic tilts the game in their favor. They win 96-72.

The SciBorgs are ebullient when they return to the pit, all but acting out their maneuvers for anyone who missed the show. Team Overdrive is gloomier, saying it was basically three against one and pointing out that they still did score 70 points. But they finish the day with two losses, and probably wouldn’t make the top eight tomorrow.

Two high school students with a robot in an arena in front of a crowd at the 2009 FIRST Robotics Competition in New York City.
The Staten Island Robotic Plague loads its hopper with moon rocks. Paul Gleason

Day Three

The qualifying rounds end on Sunday morning, March 8, shortly before noon. It’s time to select alliances for the tournament. Representatives from the top eight teams process onto the playing field, around which the rest of the captains stand in a horseshoe formation.

Over the past two days, students not working in the pit or piloting a robot have sat in the bleachers and taken notes. They tallied points scored by each robot, points scored against each robot, sometimes even points scored by the payload specialist lobbing moon rocks from the sidelines. Simon Strauss explains that many experienced schools, including his own Bronx Science, already know which teams they work well with. Teams often cut deals in advance and have some idea of what alliance they’ll end up on.

The bouncy MC has already gone over the rules: as in the qualifiers, each alliance will have three teams. That means each team gets two picks. The first-place team can take any team it likes, including one of the other top eight teams. But those teams can decline the invitation if they’d prefer to build their own alliances. The captains in the horseshoe, however, can’t decline. If they do, they can’t accept another offer; they have to sit out entirely. First place wins a spot in the national tournament in the Georgia Dome. Another spot goes to the winner of the competition’s highest honor, the Chairman’s Award. This is an all-around award for engineering, community outreach, encouraging students to choose careers in the sciences, and so forth.

The selection begins with Staten Island’s Robotic Plague, who went undefeated in the qualifying rounds. They pick New Jersey’s Team Overdrive, the home schooled team, who finished ninth. In second place, from Yonkers, the Saunders Droid Factory picks the Bronx Science SciBorgs, who graciously accept. Things turn ugly when the next team, the Harlem Knights, picks Stuyvesant. Stuyvesant turns them down. They finished eighth, so it’s within their rights, but the crowd doesn’t like it. Flustered, the boy from Frederick Douglass Academy picks the fourth-place team, Bound Brook High School from New Jersey. They turn him down, too. The crowd likes this even less. (The Knights settle for a team in the outer horseshoe.) Now it’s Bound Brook’s turn. They pick the SciBorgs, only to be told that Bronx Science is already on a team. The crowd hoots loudly, glad to see Bound Brook get some comeuppance. The RoboWarriors, after a disappointing morning, are in the outer ring. It looks like they might not make the tournament at all until, with the second-to-last pick, the Harlem Knights bring them in.

Hauppauge isn’t chosen; their tournament is over. During the coming week, says Nolan Conway, his team will find a way for its robot to move moon rocks from the ground to its hopper. (In other words, they plan to convert their defensive robot into a more aggressive one.)

Every match in the tournament is a best-of-three series. Team Overdrive and the Robotic Plague win their quarter-final easily, as does Bound Brook.

Ben Wasser’s RoboWarriors and The Harlem Knights face Stuyvesant. Simon Strauss disagrees with the notion that the Knights lucked into their high seed. He says they’re good every year, top eight this year certainly, though maybe not third. (He admits that Bronx Science would have turned them down, too.) In the first game, Stuyvesant’s alliance beats them by 60 points. Afterward, the RoboWarriors tip the Knights’ robot up on its side, trying to fix the loose chains that are making it sluggish. Wasser says he’ll be back next year, but as a volunteer. He seems resigned to losing one last time, and they do.

In a break between two quarter-final matches, there’s an odd interlude when the lights dim and a clip of Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” appears on the big screen. Fred Armisen, current cast member of SNL and former member of the Blue Man Group, walks onto the field. He calls everyone geniuses and riffs on nerdiness. He himself was a nerd, he says, and to prove it he’ll try to shoot a moon rock into a trailer. He says he’ll miss. He does. Then he’s gone.

Fred Armisen in the center of an arena in front of a crowd at the 2009 FIRST Robotics Competition in New York City.
Fred Armisen looking geek-chic in hoodie and black glasses. Paul Gleason

Saunders and Bronx Science win their first quarter-final game but drop the second when the latter’s dumping mechanism malfunctions. A timeout is called, and they whisk their robot off the field. With only a few minutes to figure out what’s wrong (and fix it), the students crouch down around the robot, pointing and yelling. A golden-shirted referee tells them to hurry up: being late after a timeout means forfeiture. The problem, they realize, is a folded cable. It’s cutting off electricity to an important motor, in the same way that a folded garden hose cuts off water. The SciBorgs return to the field just in time. Their robot works, and their alliance wins narrowly, 54-48.

The qualifying matches often looked like free-for-alls, but, in the semi-finals, clear strategies emerge. The third robot on the Bronx Science-Saunders alliance, the M.E.T.A.L. Knights, looks like little more than a clear plastic box on wheels but proves indispensable against their next opponent, Stuyvesant. The first game is tied until, with a minute remaining, the M.E.T.A.L. Knights pin Stuyvesant against a wall. Stuyvesant’s red-eyed hopper is nearly overflowing with moon rocks, but M.E.T.A.L. never gives them a chance to find a target. One of Saunders’s mentors confirms that their strategy is to neutralize Stuyvesant. Their robot attacks well but, he says, isn’t particularly strong. In the second game, while the SciBorgs collect loose moon rocks in a corner, Stuyvesant bears down on them. The SciBorg’s robot suddenly turns and jets away, barely escaping a cascade of moon rocks that now fall harmlessly over the side of the field. The M.E.T.A.L. Knights scoot in behind, and Stuyvesant finishes the match trapped against the wall. The alliance from Yonkers and the Bronx (the Knights are from the latter’s Evander Child’s Campus and High School of Computers and Technology) advances to the finals, 60-40.

In the first round of the other semi-final, the Robotic Plague stalls in its starting corner. Meanwhile, Bound Brook’s robot Robbe, a big red and gray box with a New Jersey license plate and its name in scrolling lights across its back, tears around the field. It easily out-muscles Team Overdrive, and its alliance wins by about 50 points. The second game is closer. The Robotic Plague and Team Overdrive hold a slight lead for the entire match. As time winds down, all three pairs of robots are stuck against the walls. The pinned can’t escape, and the pinning can’t move without letting them. It looks like the Robotic Plague and Team Overdrive are going to force a third game by running out the clock until a robot on Bound Brook’s alliance slips free, pounces on the robot pinning Robbe, and drops the winning moon rocks right as time expires. Overdrive’s Kenny Shotyk says miscommunication cost their alliance the first game. As for the second, he shrugs. Tom Moser shouts encouragement; they’re still going to the national championship in Atlanta, he reminds the team.

The championship round, then, pits Bronx Science, the Saunders Droid Factory, and the M.E.T.A.L. Knights against Bound Brook and its allies, from Allentown, New Jersey, and Long Island City, New York. From the start, it’s apparent that M.E.T.A.L.’s pinning strategy won’t work against Bound Brook. Robbe is simply too strong, and shrugs off attempts to trap it. Even so, Robbe’s alliance wins by only a single moon rock. In the second game, Saunders’ alliance decides to shift their tactics. They’ll avoid Robbe and focus on the robot from Allentown instead, but their robots look lost and uncoordinated during the match. Robbe’s alliance wins again, clinching the title.

Saunders finds consolation at the award ceremony, though, when they’re announced as the winners of the Chairman’s Award. They stream down from the stands. Some of the students are in tears. One of the mentors, too.