Julia Thompson is the team captain and driver of the NASA Langley sponsored FIRST Robotics NASA Knights team based as New Horizons Regional Education Center. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith
NASA Langley U.S. Army employee Chester Langston (R) works with Menchville High School senior Demetrius Adams on a robot entry in the Virginia regional FIRST Robotics competition in Richmond. Langston is the "Triple Helix" team's electronics mentor. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith
Teams from Virginia and as far away as Brazil and Canada competed in the Virginia Regional FIRST Robotics competition held March 19-21 in Richmond. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith
Many Americans know March Madness as a time when college basketball fans whip themselves into a frenzy rooting for their favorite team. But the phrase has a whole different meaning for high school engineering enthusiasts. This is the time of year when they also gear up for a big tournament, the FIRST Robotics Championship, at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
"The atmosphere at a FIRST Robotics competition is hard to describe," said Jeff Seaton, an aerospace engineer at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., who has been involved with the competition for 12 years. "It's a combination of a rock concert and the NCAA basketball tournament, except you have robots and it's focused on engineering."
To get to the big engineering "dance" in April teams have to make it through regional contests, like the one sponsored by NASA Langley and Virginia Commonwealth University, March 19-21, at VCU's Siegel Center in Richmond. Fifty-nine teams, some all the way from Brazil and Canada, came to the basketball arena to rumble, robot-style.
Working with engineering mentors, high school students had six weeks to design, build and test a robot that can meet a specific engineering challenge. This year that challenge, called "Lunacy," is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Apollo mission that landed humans on the moon. Seventeen hundred teams from 48 states and 11 foreign countries all picked up a common kit of parts that included motors, batteries, a control system and automation components back in January. The hitch ... there are no instructions.
That's where student ingenuity comes in, so much ingenuity that it can surprise even seasoned engineering professionals. "I'm fascinated with some of these robots I see in the competition " said Chester Langston, a U.S. Army employee who works at NASA Langley. "Some of them are really, really interesting and some of some are very simple, but very effective." Langston is the electronics mentor for the team from Menchville High School In Newport News, Va.
NASA Langley helps sponsor a team as well as the regional competition. The NASA Knights work out of the New Horizons Regional Education Center that serves six localities near Hampton. Julia Thompson is their captain. The sixteen year old is home-schooled, so participating on a 40-student team was a new experience for her.
"The biggest thing I've learned is teamwork, " said Thompson. "It's a lot of submit your ideas and then they get shot down from about ten different people. Then all the sudden about a week later the idea comes back up and it's accepted."
Ideas played an even bigger role in the competition than usual. This year's game had some added elements that students had to consider during design and construction.
According to the rules "Lunacy" requires robots to throw "moon rocks" into an opposing team's trailers while moving around the "crater." That's the name of the playing field, which for the first time ever is not fully carpeted. Instead, to simulate the moon's one-sixth gravity, the 27- by 54-foot surface is made of a slick polymer wallboard. Combine that with custom-made slippery wheels and the teams feel like they're driving on ice.
Adding to the challenge, robots are hitched to trailers. Plus human players are part of the scoring process, something that hasn't happened in a few years. Besides maneuvering the robots by remote control, team members can shoot "moon rocks" worth two points into the opposing team's trailers from outside the crater. During the last 20 seconds of the game, the human players can shoot "super cells" worth 15 points. But to get those high scoring "cells," players have to trade in "empty cells" that have been delivered by their robots from the opposite side of the playing field.
If it sounds a little confusing ... don't be concerned. It's child's play in the hands of students who may some day invent the next iPod or another must have device.