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FIRST Robotics Competition

I spend a large portion of my year involved in the FIRST Robotics Competition program. You will notice references to it fading in and out of my writing [mostly in]. 

Here is a description of FIRST from last Christmas, right before the build season. 

And about that robotics stuff: I keep promising an in-depth post on what exactly I am talking about when I wave terms like "build season", "regionals", "what on earth is a lugnut", "FIRST", "ship date", and "scouting" around in the aluminum-shaving-filled air.

Sooooo....FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition in Science and Technology) is a nationwide organization. They have several branches including Lego-league robotics competitions for middle schoolers (such as I helped with a few weeks ago) and FRC (FIRST Robotics Competition) for high schoolers.
My dad is the team coach/leader for our team so I tend to get sucked into the madness :P
I went to a competition in CA at the age of 13 and sort of got hooked...this will be my third year on the team to some extent.
The kickoff (Jan. 9th at an early hour of the morning) consists of the teams from all over the state coming to La Sells auditorium (goaded by coffee) and watching a live streamed broadcast of the kickoff in New Hampshire (where the founder Dean Kamen has his lair). The stream tends to go down sometimes but that's all part of the fun, hehe. Role-call: all the teams that made it over the dangerous high mountain passes and such give rousing cheers and so on.
There we learn what this year's 'game' will be: whether our robot will have to be designed to herd balls, go up ramps, throw things, or etc. We also listen to a lot of inspiring speeches by Kamen and Woodie Flowers and all those folks as to why we do this, the benefit that engineering is to the world, "gracious professionalism", and how we are going to have the best season ever. Then we all head over to the other university building to collect the kit of parts: the "Kamen tote" and the "Flowers tote" (Woodie Flowers, another beloved founder) and pack the industrial-strength wheels and metal and motors into the van and head out to school for the first day of the build season: planning.
Please note that I am not mechanically-minded in the least. My role on the team has pretty much been confined to 'scout': at the 3-day competition in March I do the whole PR bit with the other teams, convincing them that our team would be a good partner (the games are always played in alliances of three teams)--teamwork is one of the big goals of FIRST. I also do random stuff like team buttons, graphics, etc. This year I'll hopefully be helping more with the build, you know, holding bits of metal whilst people drill them :) Also doing the work for Chairman's Award (animation, essay, etc), and more communications/facilitation stuff like figure out accommodations for the competition and so on.

Competition: AKA 'regionals'. AKA three days of insanity. WHOOHOO! Portland (2 hrs away) is our regional...50 scout to interview those fifty teams (ME)...'The Coliseum' in Portland is rented for the three days...we go up early Thursday morning. Thursday is more or less practice, repairing robots that have glitches, that sort. Some teams pack up the bot at the deadline and are still tinkering with it (saws, drilling, soldering, you know, light little adjustments :P ) on Thursday. Thu. is also scouting heaven, not too stressful: I try to get around to all the teams by Thursday night and have some form of database up and running, be it ever so humble (notebook, last year. Laptop this year, hopefully).
We spend the night in Portland usually but funding is an issue this year. We may have to commute from home (groan!) but I'm looking into an offer of free housing in Wilsonville (friendly robotics team/supportive town = :) 

On Friday the intensity reaches a whole other level. There are three areas of concern: The field, where 6 robots (and attendant teams) compete at one time. In the stands we have much-maligned and under-appreciated but very-important scouts watching the teams and jotting things down on clipboards. Music blares louder each day. The pits are the third and most chaotic area: big, big conference room downstairs, full of 50 teams (an average of 20 people on each team), their robots, and whatever their 10x10 assigned homebase has been decked out with (clock, table, toolkit, etc). Noise, noise, noise. Announcer saying who's queuing up next, scouts and team members hurrying to and fro, horrible metallic screeching sounds (remember the last-minute repairs?). Usually several 'bots on their little carts (gotter save the wheels) being shuttled out to the field.
This is when the harried scout feels the insanity. Most teams have 5-8 scouts, or people who can become scouts at moment's notice. That is because most teams have 20 people or so: for the last two years we've had about 5. That's usually the driver down in the field, a human player chucking balls (last year), and so forth. My first year I was THE scout, the one-and-only scout added at the LAST minute because there were so few people. Frantic. We didn't really need the scouting info that year because we didn't do too fabulously but I came back last year resolved to do even better. Had more people to help thankfully: and our team did very well. More on that later.
Yes, by the end of Friday it is essential to have full tabs on every team there: in other words, did their bot break down? Or stall on the field (even worse)? Do they pull a lot of fouls? Do they have a fabulous human player? Are they scoring a lot in each game?
Friday night the scout with full info (laptop with program and info input) rendezvouses with the driver to plot strategy for the final day of competition.
Saturday morning everyone is unbelievably pumped: the first half of the day is qualifying matches for the semis and finals in the afternoon. Scouts firm up alliances: in the afternoon the top-ranked teams go on to finals and get to choose their alliance partners. Last year we were ranked very high all competition until late Saturday morning when we had a series of mishaps. We were still getting courted by a lot of teams, I was in contact with the top-ranked couple of teams and getting things lined up. For the top teams, Saturday lunchbreak is stressful beyond imagining: go over your notes one more time, rank your top 15 teams or so, in case you can't get your first pick; agonize one more time....send your team captain down to the field after lunch with a piece of paper with team names on it.....collapse helplessly in the bleachers.

Last year we were ranked about 16...barely missed being able to chose our partners. We were hoping and praying to get chosen by the top team but the selection process allows #1 to choose #2, and so on. We got picked by a lower-ranked team, who also selected a team that I'd marked down dismissively. Thus placed on a weak team, we nevertheless played in semi-finals, where we played several games. There was an issue with the floor, and static electricity interfering with our remote-controls. Our team had conniptions in the stands as all of the teams on our alliance, by a crazy fluke, stalled from the static, and the 2-minute match went on, and the judges did not call the match (it had been happening all morning and they'd had to keep replaying matches). Needless to say, we lost resoundingly. We were positively livid with panic as they proceeded to have a long interlude....finally announced a rematch!! (getting adrenaline just remembering...)
I think we tied that match...lost the next one...the aforementioned weak team bailed, their robot was down.....that surely has to be the saddest thing that can happen. We got eliminated fairly quickly but there was such a great sense of relief that at least we'd had our chance, the judges hadn't gone with that failed match.
Late Saturday afternoon are the awards, creativity in design and that sort, and of course first place awards for the winning three teams who go on to the nationals in Atlanta. We've never gone, but one year we went to another regional in CA and finished about 4th...very fun stuff :)
And then the first game-hint came out yesterday.
It is supposedly a hint as to what this year's game will consist of. Last year's hint was a picture of a fish, for a game played on a slippery surface ^_^ There are already pages of speculations on ChiefDelphi, the hang-out place for FIRSTies. There seems to be a consensus that the game this year may involve soccer balls, possibly on some sort of raised pathway. That CAD-designed pic is now my desktop on Eddie :)

So! There is the run-down on FIRST and why I will be insanely busy between Jan. 9th and Mar. 6.
Hmm, this really sounds like I'm insane, doesn't it? FIRST is complicated beyond belief at first glance....sounds like a cult to outsiders :)
EDIT: Come, join us in the madness!!

Now for some posts on last year's season...actually, just search for posts tagged with 'FIRST', 'robotics, 'geeky things', or 'epic' and you'll get a nice selection.