BU Today

Science & Tech

Robot Race

‘Bots face off at BU for FIRST

For several weeks this winter, about 25 Boston University Academy students and their 6 BU undergraduate mentors spent hours in a windowless lab calculating torque, drawing diagrams, and constructing prototypes. But they weren’t preparing for midterms — this project was for fun. Their creation, a robot that can play a game of three-on-three with inner tubes, is the BU team’s entry in the 2007 FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition.

The annual competition challenges high school students to build a robot that plays a specific game, which changes every year. After receiving a standard parts kit and the 100-page rule book on January 7, students had six weeks to assemble their robot and ship it off to storage, ensuring that they could no longer work on it.

FIRST is a national nonprofit initiative founded in 1989 by inventor Dean Kamen (Hon.’06) to encourage young people to get involved in, and excited about, science and technology. The FIRST Robotics Competition began in 1992 to show high school students the opportunities in technology, science, math, and engineering. This year more than 30,000 high school students from across the United States, Brazil, Canada, Ecuador, Israel, Mexico, and the United Kingdom will compete in 37 regional events.

Boston University is hosting a regional competition for 50 area high school teams on Friday, March 23, and Saturday, March 24, at Agganis Arena. Governor Deval Patrick will speak at Saturday’s event about the importance of introducing science and technology to students. Three winners from the regional contest will travel to Atlanta, Ga., for the national competition April 12 through 14.

“I personally spent about 200 hours during the six-week build period mentoring the team and helping build the robot,” says Brandon Mensing (CAS’08), the president of Boston University’s FIRST Robotics team and lead undergraduate mentor.

The team’s robot is six feet tall and three feet wide, with an arm that pivots so it can pick up inner tubes and lift them onto a rack for points. The robot can also sense color, which allows it to tell the difference between the inner tubes and the ground they’re lying on. A team wins bonus points if at the end of a match its robot can lift two other robots off the ground. The BU team’s robot has successfully used a platform to lift up two other 150-pound robots.

While knowledge of physics, engineering, or computer programming is helpful, the students on the BU team need nothing more than enthusiasm to join. What they learn ranges from teamwork and leadership to designing prototypes and the nuts and bolts of building.

“Building a robot that works consistently is far more difficult than I thought a couple of years ago when I first started doing this,” says Toby Waite, a BUA senior and one of three team captains. “It’s easy to think of an idea, but when you build it, you’re going to find out that it has all these small problems you didn’t foresee, so maybe it only works one out of 10 times the way you thought it would, or maybe you didn’t design it right and it’s not gong to work at all.”

Boston University teams have been competing in the FIRST competition since 1999 and are among the strongest in the area. Team members share their expertise and facilities with all area teams. BU hosted a kickoff day, a two-day crate-building workshop, and an event when the robots were ready to be shipped to storage. This year the team also posted 26 podcasts, with reminders to make spare parts, insights into game strategy, and other tips. Over Presidents’ Day weekend, just before the build period ended, many BU team members mentored other teams, helping them complete their robots on time.

The regional competition at Agganis begins at 8 a.m. on March 23 and 24 and is free and open to the public.

Catherine Santore can be reached at csantore@bu.edu.