BU Today

Campus Life

Robots on the Brain

Brandon Mensing (CAS’08) hopes to lead the BU/BU Academy robotics team to remote-controlled glory.

Brandon Mensing (CAS’08) has had robots on the brain since sixth grade, when he saw a robot built from scratch by a group of engineering geeks in his hometown. Mensing is now a lead undergraduate mentor of the Boston University/BU Academy’s robotics team — and he is more hooked than ever. On January 6, the team gathered at the George Sherman Union for the kickoff event of the 2007 FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition, an annual competition that challenges high school students to build robots completely from scratch. The nonprofit FIRST was started by inventor Dean Kamen (Hon.’06) to motivate students to enter careers in math, science, and engineering.

“Right now our team faces the largest season we’ve had yet,” Mensing says. “We plan to go to the championship in Atlanta at the Georgia Dome, we’re also helping 21 local rookie and sophomore FIRST teams to ensure they have a successful experience, and we’re recruiting more members than ever to build the most complex robot our team has ever attempted.”

Mensing is psyched about the competition. Saturday’s event featured brainstorming sessions, a speech from Kenneth Lutchen, College of Engineering dean, and a live broadcast of the competition rules from NASA Television. NASA is a major partner in the competition. Teams have six weeks to build their robots from kits supplied by FIRST; 50 will be selected for the March regional competition at Agganis Arena, with winners going on to compete in the nationals.

But the toughest part for the robotics team, Mensing says, is dealing with team growth. As the team has expanded, the level of sponsorship and competitiveness has increased.

“It’s challenging because this program is incredibly fast-paced for all FIRST teams,” he says. “Working to move our team up to the next level makes the challenge that much greater.”

So how exactly do team members cope? Rigorous practice. After the kickoff event, they meet every day, “rain or shine,” to make sure their robot is finished within the six-week deadline. The meetings are casual — “educational yet unstructured” — and range from strategic discussions to all-night building and programming.  Mensing says the team is currently looking for more undergraduates to join, regardless of background or experience.

“We don’t sit around a table and do math and diagrams,” he says. “We take a bunch of aluminum and motors and build stuff.”