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Future engineers scramble to be tops in FIRST Robotics competition in Manchester

New Hampshire Union Leader

January 09. 2016 8:36PM
A game called Stronghold was revealed during the FIRST Robotics Competition Kickoff held at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester on Saturday. (Thomas Roy/Union Leader)

MANCHESTER - Let the siege begin!

Thousands of high school students packed a gymnasium at Southern New Hampshire University on Saturday for the unveiling of the FIRST Robotics Competition's new challenge.

Students cheered the highly anticipated announcement, then immediately began plotting how best to storm the castles of “FIRST Stronghold.”

“It's beyond complicated,” said Alex Peterson, captain of Londonderry High School's PVC Pirates team. “We thought last year was an interesting challenge. This sort of blows it right out of the water.”

Students rushed after the announcement to a neighboring gym where an actual Stronghold playing “field” was on display for teams to start with the earliest reconnaissance work like taking measurements and sizing up the various obstacles the soon-to-be built robots will need to navigate.

Stronghold has a Middle Ages theme with castle towers at both ends of the field. The object is to breach the opponent's defenses and weaken the towers with “boulders,” gray foam gym balls the robots will launch at targets that have designated point values. The towers' strength weakens with every winning boulder shot until the tower is vulnerable enough to be captured.

Teams can surround robots at the base of the tower and complete the capture by having the machines scale the tower over the last 20 seconds.

If building a robot from a set list of materials and getting it to hurl the boulders accurately isn't enough of a challenge, teams also must choose some of their own defensive measures while trying to break through the opposition. Both teams can choose three defensive obstacles just before the match — or quest — begins. Another defensive option is chosen periodically by members of the audience, which is a bit of a new twist on the competition FIRST founder Dean Kamen created in 1989.

“The goal is always a balance between making it an incredible, interesting technical challenge, but also making it something that will be just plain fun and exciting,” Kamen said as hundreds of students scurried about the Stronghold. “We wanted to make it this year visually exciting and understanding as an audience sport. We want fans. We want this to be a spectator sport.”

The kickoff event at SNHU was one of many throughout the world. The competition has grown to more than 3,100 teams participating in 118 regional and district events. The goal is to qualify for the FIRST championship April 27-30 in St. Louis.

“The hardest fun you'll ever have, for sure. They say it and it's 100 percent true,” said Tiffany Miller, a junior on the PVC Pirates squad.

The kickoff was simulcast to 114 venues so all of the competitors learned the challenge at the same time. Teams have the next six weeks to create the robots the students and mentors design specifically for the game.

Tim Guyer, a sophomore from Prospect Mountain High School, was still trying to get a handle on the challenges Stronghold presented.

“It's a lot more complicated than last year,” Guyer said. “It's going to be difficult to build a robot that can actually do this.”

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