Robotic Success in St. Louis

Two robotics teams sponsored by Robotics Outreach at Lincoln Laboratory (ROLL) had successful seasons in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Tech Challenge (FTC) for students in grades 9-12.

The MITiBot and Robots and Brain Bots, Inc. (or R.A.B.B.I.) teams earned an invitation to compete in the World Championship in St. Louis, Missouri in late April. More than 600 teams from 29 countries competed in three different age-group competitions.

photo of MITiBot teamThe winning MITiBot team joined in the fun atmosphere of the competition by donning superhero-like capes, reflecting their team name, pronounced "mighty bot."

MITiBot, mentored by John Peabody of Lincoln Laboratory's Aerospace Sensor Technology Group, competed twice before in the World Championship match, but the third time was the charm. This year, they won the World Championship as members of the winning alliance—an award which represents the alliance in the final match of the competition, consisting of three teams. After battling 64 teams in seven rounds, the MITiBots were in 34th place before being selected as an ally by the fourth-ranked alliance, SD30 Robotics from Ronan, Montana, and the Wreckers from Westport, Connecticut. This selection was a tribute to the creative marketing and scouting techniques used by the MITiBots. Progressing through the semi-finals and the finals of the division, this alliance competed in a "best 2 out of 3" showdown, earning the title World Championship Winning Alliance in two matches. Peabody said, "Being able to experience being a member of the World Championship Winning Alliance with these students was great. It means a lot to the three remaining members of the original MITiBot team whom I have mentored for 3 seasons. It also helps to motivate the new team members to work harder next season." Of the MITiBot team, Peabody said, "The students this season worked extremely hard at perfecting the design they created. Rather than redesigning the robot numerous times, the students continued to improve on what they thought was the most efficient design for this seasons game. It was rewarding to see them trust in their design and improve upon it with an engineering process."

photo of MITiBot teamTeam R.A.B.B.I. accepted the Inspire Award at the FIRST World Championship.

Team R.A.B.B.I., from Gann Academy in Waltham, Massachusetts, mentored by Jerry Jaeger of the Airborne Networks Group at Lincoln Laboratory and coached by Tal Achituv, a software engineer and husband of Rachel Achituv of the Laboratory's Chemical and Biological Defense Systems Group, earned a trip to the World Championship by claiming the highest honor in FTC New York State Championship, the Inspire Award. This team won the Inspire Award again at the World Championship—an impressive feat for a rookie team. This most prestigious award is given to the team that embodies the challenge of the FTC program and best represents a role model as an FTC team. According to the judges, this team won based on their "unique robotics design, team spirit, high motivation, and detailed engineering notebook," paired with "skillful and diligent efforts to overcome a myriad of technical and logistical challenges, and outreach efforts promoting FIRST." The two most impressive undertakings by the students were their ability to create a fully autonomous robot, and their eagerness to help other teams. Jaeger said this team showed "strong outreach and technical skills by volunteering to help with many teams throughout the competition including posting their code as open source online, setting up a practice field for other teams to use and translating for the non-English speaking teams from Mexico during the World Championships. The team demonstrated their technical achievement to the community during Boston's First Night event, the Museum of Science's National Robotics Week and area school science fairs. The team also shared their enthusiasm for robotics and engineering with local engineers by presenting to the Boston Area IEEE Robotics Society members."  

The Gann Academy team is co-sponsored by the National Defense Education Program (NDEP) which invests in science, engineering and math education from middle and high school through college and post graduation. NDEP aims to support a new generation of scientists and engineers who will apply their talents in our nation's defense laboratories. NDEP supports the Laboratory in the effort of inspiring students to enter fields of study in science, math, engineering, and technology.

photo of MITiBot teamMembers of the MITiBot team perform last-minute checks on their robot (#2875) and the playing field prior to the final competition.

What is FTC? The FIRST Tech Challenge is an annual robotic competition for teams of up to ten students who are responsible for designing, building, and programming their robots to compete in an alliance format against other teams. The robot kit is reusable from year-to-year and is programmed using a variety of languages. Teams, including coaches, mentors, and volunteers, are required to develop strategy and build robots based on sound engineering principles. Awards are given for the competition as for well as for community outreach, design, and other real-world accomplishments. This "super bowl for the mind" as Peabody calls it, "allows students to experience science, technology, engineering, and math and other life skills in a gracious and competitive environment. The robot is merely a tool for exciting and exposing students to the wonders of team work, networking, marketing, and everything else that FIRST has to offer."

What’s the challenge? The challenge this year was titled "Get Over It." In this challenge, two alliances composed of two teams each compete in matches consisting of a 40-second autonomous period followed by a two-minute driver-controlled period. The object of the game is to score more points than the opponent's alliance by emptying baton dispensers filled with six-inch long PVC tubes and storing them in stationary and rolling goals. Using a combination of sensors, including infrared tracking, line following, magnet seeking, ultrasonic, and touch, students programmed their robots to operate in both autonomous and driver-controlled modes over a raised center goal.  

This season's successes for these two teams are testament to the long hours spent on every weekend from September through May building and programming a robot designed for the specified challenge, as well as good advice from technical mentors, and identifying lessons learned in past competitions.

FIRST robotics has provided these students with a great introduction to engineering. Jaeger said, "FIRST robotics programs foster an interest in engineering by providing a fun, team-based, hands-on process-oriented challenge. It encourages teens to seek opportunities to learn first-hand about the field of engineering."

(photos courtesy of Joe Usoff)

Posted June 2011

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