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So You Wanna Build a Robot? [VIDEO]

Yesterday was the first day of competition for the FIRST Championship—a multi-day robotics competition featuring 648 teams and 12,000 student competitors ranging from elementary school tinkerers, to complex high school-level engineering operations. In short, it’s the Super Bowl of amateur robotics.

We caught up with FIRST mentor and senior engineer Kiet Chau, who shared his experience with the FIRST program and how it prepared him for a career in engineering at Qualcomm Labs. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did your time on your high school FIRST team prepare you for the world of professional engineering?

I started in FIRST as a freshman in high school, on Team 968 in West Covina, Calif. I was involved in programming, electrical design, and mechanical design there. My four years prepped me to get through college.

It even led to a job. In 2008, during my senior year of high school, we went to the San Diego regional, which was sponsored by Qualcomm. I wrote this robotics scouting application that my team and other teams could use. The scout application allowed my team to collect robot statistics, to see how the other teams performed, and from that data come up with a good strategy to play the game with those teams.

A VP at Qualcomm saw it, and asked me to interview for an internship that upcoming summer. A few weeks later I was an intern at Qualcomm.

What projects are you working on now at Qualcomm Labs, Inc?

We are more of a fast, rapid development group, and we work on quick projects. We don't work directly on robotics, per se, but leverage skills from folks who do FIRST robotics and things like that. Lately I've been working on the Internet of Things project. And I used to work at corporate R&D on the Zeroth project.

Zeroth is a pretty significant robotics project at Qualcomm, what were you working on for that?

I did a broad spectrum of things. We had a robot that would drive around and seek out colored squares, and I was directly involved in the CAD work—the mechanical design of it, the fabrication of it, the programming, writing drivers for controllers and things like that.

And you’re also a mentor to a FIRST team?

Yeah, I've been a FIRST mentor for six years now. While I was an intern at Qualcomm, I mentored my old high school team. Then when I got a job offer, I moved to San Diego and mentored a team called Holy Cows.

Has there ever been some crosstalk between the two worlds? Like: was there some problem at Qualcomm that you solved using your experience in FIRST, or vice versa?

Definitely. In 2012 we went to the FIRST Championship, and there were a lot of communications issues—problems with communications to the field, problems with drivers communicating with their robots. And it wasn't necessarily a fault with the teams. It was an inherent problem with the communication system.

In FIRST we use Wi-Fi, so, pretty much anyone could walk in a do whatever they want. What we actually found out was, there was a member from a team that went ahead and found a bug in the access point—where if you attempt to authenticate, and if there were a certain amount of characters in the passphrase that were incorrect, it would turn off the entire access point. So people were able to specifically target teams on the field.

That Monday, after coming home from the championship, I talked to a couple folks at Qualcomm, "We had this really big problem at the championship where people were having problems controlling their robots." And sure enough, a couple people from FIRST asked Qualcomm for help for the following FIRST Championship in 2013. I was involved in evaluating the different ways of keeping the network secure.

So Qualcomm helped make the FIRST communication system work better. And that pretty much all started with me at the competition.

That's so cool! How long do you see yourself participating in FIRST?

When I was a student in FRC, my mentors—they were college students at the time—they happen to be students in FRC when they were in high school. So there's kind of this attitude of paying it forward. They spent their free time to teach and mentor us, and get us ready for our futures. So, now that I'm here at Qualcomm, I get to design cool things, and leverage those skills I learned at FIRST in the workplace. I feel like I need to go back and mentor students so they'll be prepped and ready to move onto college; and not only move onto college but ready to join the workforce later.

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