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FIRST robotics' future looks electric

New Hampshire Sunday News

January 03. 2015 5:12PM
From left are Martine Rothblatt, Chairman and CEO of Revivicor, a sponsor, Dean Kamen FIRST founder, Julia Meisser, a freshman at John Stark Regional High and teammate Cooper Otis, an 8th grader at Hopkinton Middle High School as they talk about the FIRST Robotics world map they created and presented to Dean Kamen during the 2015 FIRST Robotics Competition Kickoff at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester on Saturday. (Thomas Roy/Union Leader)

MANCHESTER  - It's way bigger than the robots."

Punctuated by high-tech video images and thumping electronic dance music, that message was broadcast to the world from yesterday's kickoff for the 2015 FIRST Robotics Competition.

For the kids of FIRST, the Saturday after New Year's has become something of a cross between Christmas morning and the opening playoff game for your favorite team. That's when teams all over the world get their first glimpse of this year's game and playing field, and pick up the kits of parts from which they'll build their robotic competitors over the next six weeks.

Sixty-eight teams from seven Northeast states were on hand for the FRC kickoff held at Southern New Hampshire University. The teens sat captivated as the details of the game and the components of this year's kits were revealed.

In true FIRST tradition, this year's game, dubbed Recycle Rush, is both whimsical and technically challenging. Robots earn points by stacking plastic totes, with extra points for adding round recycling bins to the stacks and for disposing of "trash" (plastic pool noodles) in those bins. Meanwhile, the human players can heave more trash into the other side's field to count against them.

Adam Champagne, a senior at Campbell High in Litchfield, is on the school's "Potential Energy" team. As soon as the problem was unveiled, he was thinking about an engineering challenge. "I feel like robots picking up heavy containers are going to tip," he said.

"This is insane," he said approvingly. "It's going to be great."

Sean Moushegian of Nashua, a home-schooled sophomore on the Mechanical Mayhem team from Milford, was thinking along the same lines. "It's going to be interesting to see how strategy works this year: how tall you can go and how easy it is to topple them."

It's been 25 years since Bedford inventor/entrepreneur Dean Kamen started FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). Back then, his dream was to make science and technology as exciting and respected as the sports stars kids idolized.

In 1992, Kamen started a robotics competition that challenged student teams and their adult engineer-mentors to design and build machines that could perform a complex series of tasks while competing against each other in arenas. Back then, there were no smartphones, no social media to spread the word.

But his idea caught on.

The 2015 FIRST Robotics Competition is expected to include nearly 75,000 students from almost 3,000 teams in 19 countries.

And with each season, the game has evolved to highlight and reward such values as teamwork, cooperation and what Kamen calls "gracious professionalism."

Yesterday, team members moved around the mock playing field, taking measurements and photos, hoisting bins and practicing stacking them to better visualize what their robots will have to do.

Alex Peterson, a junior on Londonderry High's "PVC Pirates" team, was thinking about the challenge of getting a robot to maneuver the very different shapes of the totes, bins and noodles. "I can't wait to go back home and see what everyone thinks about it, and sort of talk and discuss and strategize," he said. "I'm just really pumped for the season."

Julia Meisser of Weare is a freshman on "OZ-Ram," the combined team from Hopkinton and John Stark high schools. She's been in FIRST LEGO League, a sort of preparatory program for younger students, but this is her first time on an FRC team.

Still, she was already visualizing a robot, something along the lines of a forklift perhaps. "A lot of people are measuring stuff out, thinking about sizes, but there's got to be some weight stuff to think about too, and leverage," she mused.

The OZ-Ram team got tapped for a special assignment by Kamen: to build a map for this year's competition. Each year, a different team is chosen for the task, with less than three weeks to get it done.

Team captain Joseph Norris of Hopkinton, a senior who's been doing FRC since 7th grade, said they used a 3-D printer to design a relief map depicting how many teams each state and country has and where this year's competitions will be held.

"We thought it was unique in two ways: As a FIRST team, we're trying to be on the cutting edge, but also, the 3-D printing industry is really something that's about to take off," he said.

Other kickoff events were held in more than 100 other locations linked through a worldwide broadcast.

But only the New Hampshire event featured Kamen himself. Dressed in his trademark blue shirt and jeans, he strolled around the room after the game was unveiled, chatting easily with the teens, who hung on his approving words and held up their phones to capture photos of their uber-mentor.

In a videotaped segment, NASA administrator Charles Bolden told the students that a robot designed by a FIRST team a few years ago inspired design elements for a surface exploration vehicle that will be vital as the agency turns its focus to Mars.

And, Bolden said, "Because of your hard work and commitment to your team and the competition, I have no doubts you'll help make technical breakthroughs that will inspire future generations of people just like you working on space missions."

In another taped segment, Kamen talked about some cherished advice his father, an artist, had given him when he was young: "Figure out what you love to do, and figure out how to get so good at it you can make a living doing it. And then, just like me, you'll never be working; you'll be doing something you love all the time."

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