More than 10,000 students (age 6 to18) packed the Edward Jones arena in St. Louis recently for the 2013 FIRST Robotics Championship. These hopeful young minds were there to compete and collaborate at a show known as “the worlds.” Founded by inventor Dean Kamen some 22 years ago, the FIRST organization encourages young people to dream of becoming science and technology leaders.
The mood during the three-day competition was celebratory, marked by pulsating music, chanting, dancing, and all manner of costumes—superhero capes, medieval armor, and no shortage of crazy hats. For example, the Century Strikers team from Mt. Prospect, Illinois, wore giant bowling pins on their heads. Another team wore meticulously constructed balsa wood models of the Wright Brothers aircraft. In addition, there were lots of face paintings and faux tattoos and flags (37 countries were represented). The competition was serious, with more than 25,000 spectators attending the final match, but the vibe was fun, even magical!
One team, the Patronum Bots from East Troy, Wisconsin, takes its name from a magical spell. This first-year FTC Robotics team consists of the three Hunter sisters: Rachel (9th grade), Lauren (7th grade), and Caitlin (5th grade). Rachel, the driver of the team robot, explains that, “Our team number is the same as the number on the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter movies, so we wanted to have a connection.”
Every team member has an important role to play. Caitlin is the mascot. “I go around in this big box-type costume,” she says. “And it’s really fun because everybody says, ‘Oh look there’s a robot! Can I take a picture with you?’ It keeps the team’s spirits up.”
Decked out in bright, yellow-meshed tutus that matched the color of their sleek safety glasses, Rachel and her sisters may not look very fierce, but these youngsters are in fact seasoned veterans, with an impressive track record in the world of competitive robotics. Starting out in the FIRST LEGO League (for kids in grades 4 to 8), this year they moved up to FTC
After competing in tournaments at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, where they earned the Think Award, and later in Crawfordsville, Indiana, where they were the first runner up for the Inspire Award, the Patronum Bots were invited to be the only team to represent Wisconsin at the nationals.
Bringing the Bot to Life
Creating the Patronum team robot took about four months, with help from the team coaches Shawn and Meg Hunter, who also happen to be the parents of the Hunter sisters. Lauren explained the design process, “We did a little bit of CAD with Google SketchUp, but it was mostly hand drawings.” The build was “much easier,” according to Rachel, “It was just a matter of a couple weeks to put all of our design pieces together.”
In addition to the engineering component, the competition teaches valuable life lessons about entrepreneurship. As Rachel explains, “Your start-up cost is a lot. Since we are a new team, we didn’t have a lot of the supplies the other teams do.” Supplies, according to Lauren, include “saws, drills, Allen wrenches, drill bits, a drill press, hammers, screws, nails. You need everything.”
Entering the Ring
FTC competitions look a bit like robotic ring toss. As reported by the team’s hometown newspaper, “Teams of up to 10 students design, build and program a robot to compete in an alliance against other teams. This year's challenge, ‘Ring It Up,’ was played on a 12x12–foot field where alliances of two teams each try to score the most points by placing plastic rings onto pegs on a center rack in 2 ½-minute matches, with a 30-second autonomous period.”
Lauren, who coaches the drive team, welcomed the challenge. According to her bio on the team’s website, “My life pretty much revolves around robotics.…I joined FTC because it sounded like a lot of fun, and I wanted the chance to build bigger and better robots.…My favorite part of FTC is building with raw materials and using power tools.
A Silicon Summit
Unlike other competitions that focus on destroying the opposing team’s robots, the FIRST program celebrates achievement and promotes collaboration through a principle called, “gracious professionalism,” an ideal that is clearly embraced by the Hunter sisters, including the youngest member of the family, Caitlin, whose team bio says, “I love science, math, and reading any book I can get my hands on.”
When asked what was the most fun part about being at the championship, Caitlin answered, “I like talking to other teams from different countries. They all have different kinds of designs and they think of these crazy ideas.”
Lauren echoed that idea, saying that, “Our first match was with someone from Russia. And they didn’t exactly speak great English, but we had to figure out a way to work with them… and it was a great experience.” Rachel, who aspires to be an engineer, pointed out that establishing relationships is not only fun, but strategic, “Once you have that relationship, you can come back later and get advice and scouting information. We’re collaborating with one of our partner teams. And we’ve shared a lot with them, even though we’re against them in one of our matches…They’re helping us with our strategizing.”
Check out another mythically-named robot from the FTC competition below.