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FIRST challenge accepted

New Hampshire Sunday News

January 04. 2014 10:02PM
Revanth Damerla, left, a senior at Bishop Brady, takes notes about the overhead truss, during the FIRST Robotics kickoff of aerial assist, the new robotic challenge, held at Southern New Hampshire University. (Thomas Roy/Union Leader)

The FIRST Robotics Competition is about a lot more than robots, its founder, Dean Kamen, told competitors on Saturday.

"Winning the game is fun," Kamen told thousands gathered inside the Southern New Hampshire University gym and thousands more watching in 93 other locations via remote broadcast. "But the importance of FIRST is it's going to change the rest of your life."

Gov. Maggie Hassan, former Gov. John Lynch and U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen were on hand for the local FIRST kickoff, where this year's game was unveiled before the eager crowd.

Dubbed "Aerial Assist," it's a sort of crazy volleyball/soccer contest in which student-designed robots will maneuver balls down a playing field, over a mid-field truss and into high or low goals to score - all while trying to keep opponents from doing the same.

And because this is Dean Kamen and FIRST, there are bonus points for passing or catching balls with robots from other teams that are in your "alliance."

"It's really a way to make teamwork even more valuable," Kamen said.

It didn't go unnoticed.

David Udelson of Bow, a senior at St. Paul School in Concord, has done FIRST for three years and said he's never seen anything like this year's challenge. "There's never been this much stress on cooperation between teams," he said while teammates Andy Dienes, a freshman from Concord, and Kelly Gallagher, a senior from Bristol, took measurement of different aspects of the playing field.

It's Gallagher's first involvement in FIRST, and she said she was amazed at the enthusiasm level at the kickoff.

As for the game, she said, "It's going to require us to build a more flexible machine that can adapt to more situations - which is a lot like the real world."

Mike Fitzell is a mentor for Team 238, the Cruisin' Crusaders from Manchester Memorial High School. A software engineer, he got involved in FIRST when his own children were in the program - 12 years ago. "I kept doing it because I saw what it did for my kids and what it did for other kids who needed it," he said.

Team member Samantha Sirois, a senior who wants to study electrical engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute after graduation, said this year's robots will have to be able to multi-task.

"There are a lot of different opportunities and a lot of different ways people can design things, and I'm exciting to see what people will come up with," she said.

The 2,700-plus teams from 17 countries competing this year will have roughly six weeks to design, build and test their robots.

The real challenge comes at competition time, when each team is matched up randomly with two other teams to form "alliances." That's when teams will find out whether their robots' strengths are compatible.

New this year, there are 54 regional events that lead up to four qualifying championships, including the New England FRC event April 10 to 12 at Boston University.

It all culminates in the FIRST Championship in St. Louis, Mo., April 24 to 26.

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