Robots take center stage at FIRST


Laurel Desrosier (BUA '10), Sam Roberts (BUA '08) and Steve Howland (team mentor) maneuver their robot during early rounds of play.
Laurel Desrosier (BUA '10), Sam Roberts (BUA '08) and Steve Howland (team mentor) maneuver their robot during early rounds of play.

Center court at Boston University’s Agganis Arena is usually reserved for hustling athletes chasing after hockey pucks and basketballs, or notable musicians belting out their most popular songs. But for one weekend each spring, Agganis Arena is overtaken by entirely different species – robots.

For the third consecutive year, Boston University hosted the regional Boston FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition, which requires student teams to design and build robots to compete in a different challenge each year. Fifty-one teams from seven states competed, including Boston University Academy, which works out of the College of Engineering at 44 Cummington St.

In this year’s challenge, the participating schools were broken into teams of three schools apiece. In each round, two teams faced off against each other in a game called “Overdrive,” which was played on a 54-foot-long, 27-foot-wide track. Each team had two large “trackballs” placed on an overpass at the track’s midpoint. Teams scored points for maneuvering their robots to knock opponent’s ball off the overpass, crossing their robot into the opponent’s zone, crossing back into their own zone and placing their ball back onto the overpass, all within two minutes and 15 seconds. The top teams advance to the National First Competition in Atlanta on April 17.

“It gets high school kids involved early – it’s awesome,” said Max Konig (ENG’11), a mentor for the BU Academy team. He participated in FIRST throughout high school and won a FIRST Scholarship to attend BU. “Before FIRST, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. This really showed me how cool engineering is. It even inspired me to learn to weld in my garage. Now, I get to help out this team and have some fun.”

In the pit, behind the competition arena, students swarmed the aisles, shepherding robots back and forth from team booths to the arena and huddling over their machines between rounds to tinker with last minute adjustments. 

“Our robot did better than I thought we would for our first match,” said Craig Broady (BUA’08) while working in the pit. “We just have a few things to touch up. Everyone has a good robot this year. It will be tough – but as long as we can drive as well as possible we have a good chance.”

Each team spent six weeks designing and building its robot. “The size and weight of the ball was the main problem,” said Betsy Riley (BUA’10). “We knew it would be difficult to make the robotic arm strong enough to get the ball over the overpass.” 

The team prototyped several designs, constructed working models and selected the best one to build on the final robot.

“When we first tried the robot, the arm picked up the ball. It was so cool because it had worked and we had built it,” said Riley who plans to study physics in college. “It’s closing the gap between product and process. When I see a car, it’s mysterious how it works and where the parts came from. But with the robot – I built that, I know how that works.”

The winning team consisted of Trinity High School from Manchester, NH, Shenendehowa High School from Clifton Park, NY, and Tewksbury (Mass.) High School. BU Academy placed 37th and despite not advancing to Atlanta, team members said the weekend competition and two-month-long preparation was well worth the effort.

Team advisor and BUA physics teacher Gary Garber said, “I was pretty excited about the teamwork this year. We had a good group of kids, and they put in a lot of effort.”

“A lot of students show up and are unsure what they can do,” said team mentor Elizabeth Simpson (CAS’09), “but as the season progresses, they get so much more comfortable with the machines and tools. They can put something together. Everyone had a great experience.” As for winning, she said, “There’s always next year.” 

The FIRST Robotics Competition gears up at Agganis Arena.
The FIRST Robotics Competition gears up at Agganis Arena.