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FIRST challenge unveiled - and it's a tough one

New Hampshire Union Leader

January 05. 2013 8:52PM
Jad Hanna takes a measurement during the annual FIRST competition kickoff, held at Southern New Hampshire University on Saturday. (Thomas Roy/Union Leader)

Hollis/Brookline High School senior Aaron Pepin's emotions went from excitement to angst when he saw the 2013 FIRST Robotics Competition challenge unveiled Saturday.

Designers threw the teenage teams in the worldwide technical design competition a curve - in the form of plastic disks much like the common Frisbee.

"Frisbees! How do you throw a Frisbee? How do you get a robot to throw a Frisbee?" said Pepin, the co-CEO of this year's Hollis/Brookline team.

Competitors throughout the country and world learned at the same time via webcast and NASA-TV what this year's FIRST - For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology - competition entailed. Teens packed the fieldhouse floor at Southern New Hampshire University for brief remarks from FIRST founder Dean Kamen and new Gov. Maggie Hassan before the webcast began. About 25 minutes later, they learned about the "Ultimate Assent."

There was a collective cheer in the fieldhouse when the tech-savy teenagers saw the new competition outlined and learned that instead of balls, the robots they design will have to launch disks at targets on a 27-by-54-foot field. There are also two 10-foot pyramids which the robots can climb at the end of the match to score bonus points, based on how high the machines can reach before the buzzer.

Kamen, the Manchester-based inventor, was beaming with pride as hundreds of teens scurried around a mock-up of the field. They were taking measurements, studying angles, and gathering any other intelligence they could in preparation for the regional competition in six weeks.

"The instantaneous response shows you how sophisticated the FIRST community has gotten, and it was great," said Kamen, recalling how the first FIRST competition involved robots pushing tennis balls around a 12-foot square. "Every year we make it more challenging and every year the kids exceed our expectation and rise to the challenge."

Members of Gilford High School, the defending Granite State Regional champion, had already surveyed the arena and were about to head home, eachl with ideas churning away on how they could return to the national competition once again.

"It's a lot harder than it was last year. I'm already building the robot in my head," junior Drake Parker said. "You use pretty much every minute of time (available) for the next six weeks."

This year's competition involves 2,548 teams from 16 countries, including 375 newcomers. More than 50,900 students will participate - all wit the help of adult mentors and supporters. Hooksett was one of 82 locations set up for Saturday's event.

Pepin was using his iPhone and Skype to communicate with teammates back at the school, who were asking him questions and directing him to shoot different video angles from the site in the SNHU gymnasium.

"It's cool because they can ask the questions that we might not be thinking. It gives them a better sense," Pepin said. "They're sitting back at the lab brainstorming out how we should play the game."

And "how" may be the most essential question to address first, said Hollis/Brookline mechanical director Matt Carr, a junior who was deep in thought on how to get a robot to propel a disk accurately. He was wary of trying to replicate the throwing motion with a mechanical arm, but also knew he had to come up with a way to get the disk rotating.

"If you just hit it from the back it's not going to be spinning so it won't be stable," Carr said. "That's the issue with Frisbees - it's the spinning that keeps it stable."

Hassan, who was just sworn in as governor Thursday, marvelled at the students as they scattered throughout the playing field, obviously relishing the challenges they face in the next six weeks.

"What it shows is how much energy and enthusiasm there is for hands-on learning in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math," she said. "It's such a good example of what New Hampshire is all about. We have great people here who are creative inventors and also incredibly hard workers and always see a way forward. It just is a wonderful example of that spirit.

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