(the) FIRST Robotics Competition

What weighs 120 pounds, can fly at you near 20mph, score soccer balls, climb 90inch tall towers and more all while remotely controlled? If you said a robot from this years FIRST, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, competition congrats you’ve won one internet.

This past Thursday, Friday, and Saturday (March 25-27 respectively) the Oklahoma FIRST regional competition took place. Once again I, HaD writer [Jakob] was lucky enough to not only attend, but compete! Check out our full breakdown after the jump.

Readers may remember some time back when we explained he OKBEST competition, and noticed it had striking similarities to the FIRST competition. While the build time is only 6 weeks for both competitions, that is where the similarities end. We would love to give a rehash and an explanation of differences, but readers might like to simply read and compare for themselves between BEST and FIRST and realize they are completely different games.

This years goal for FIRST, is in short, a soccer game. A field with 6 robots (1 robot per team), three blue, three red, battle it out head to head; blocking, scoring, and more to be the winner of the round. The addition of not knowing your two other teammates until the day of the match, and the inclusion of small ‘hill’s and ‘climbs’ increase the difficulty of the competition. Those looking for a full explanation of the rules and game type can find it here.

Team captain once again played the role to allow me to bring you this overview. Unlike previous robotic competitions, this was the first time our team, 3124, attended FIRST — making us rookies.

Our team’s design, if put into one word would be simple. The initial aluminum frame was constructed on kickoff day from our kit of parts. After that, to keep the soccer ball out from under the robot – we wrapped a (donated supply) wooden skirt around the perimeter of the bot. A pneumatic (donated, yet later not used, we broke too many rules with it) kicker was implemented. After having traction issues – a custom spring suspension system (perhaps the most complicated portion of our robot, two springs and a bolt) kept all 4 wheels securely on the ground.

While we were rookies, had very little funding, only two/three active members, and even more disadvantages we still managed to come out on top. By ranking 5th (out of 54 other teams) in the seeding rounds, we attended semi finals after asking teams 932 and 2842 to join us, and ended up 3rd overall; giving us the award for Highest Rookie Seed. Anyone wishing to watch some (or all) of the matches and learn how teams ranked up should check BotsnLinux.net.

First definitely is a unique experience, and I’m glad I was able to attend. Honestly, we didn’t expect to reach nearly as high as we did in rankings. But thus teaching, you don’t have to have tons of money, or a complicated system, or a large team, or the best design to win. The adventure of course taught us much more than that in the end as well. Hopefully values and ideas that can be taken and used in future endeavors for years and years to come.

37 thoughts on “(the) FIRST Robotics Competition

  1. This happened in Denver this weekend also. It seems to coincide with spring break, its a great thing to bring your kids and check out the robots. You can wander around the pits and check out the action, and its all free! This was my 5th year and I look forward to it every year. Its always great to see the different ideas that each team comes up with.

  2. Hey! We were also in Denver this week! I agree, FIRST is one of the best ways to get involved in engineering while helping students! I’m surprised Hackaday doesn’t cover more of it! Some of the robots built are truly marvels of engineering. Check out some of the competitions and get involved next year!!

    Go team 1817!!

  3. I hate the FIRST Competition. Compared to Botball, you pay more money to compete with robots that are capable of less. Remote Control isn’t a challenge. Just try cooking up dead-reckoning, and Dijkstra’s algorithm code in one night for your robot. That’s a challenge.

  4. I’m also part of FIRST. I’ve competed for 3 years and graduated from high school last year. I volunteered this year at the Dallas regional a couple weeks ago. FIRST is by far the most memorable experience I had in high school. It is what caused me to go into engineering. I still look forward to it every year.

    Everyone should get involved in this. If you are in high school, compete. If you are not, volunteer at a regional or be a mentor/coach for a team. You will not regret it.

  5. @baobrien

    I don’t know if they’ve removed the autonomous portion of FIRST, but I know when I competed, we spent a large portion of our time figuring out the autonomous match time. It was usually the first 15 seconds or so when the robots had to perform completely autonomously. The years I competed (04-06), we had to deal with some dead reckoning (we used 8 bit rotary encoders attached to our drive wheels, and some non-driven encoders to account for slip), and image recognition and rangefinding using a CMUCam.

    Botball is a different beast. They’re tiny robots. A quick google search turned up lots of lego bots. I’m sure they have custom code, but still, they’re lego robots.

    FIRST is remote control primarily for safety. The robots are more complicated mechanically, and have orders of magnitude more power than Botball robots. If a FIRST robot was entirely autonomous, and a code error caused it to go out of control, serious injuries could result. Believe me, I was lacerated more than a few times by my team’s robots during testing in the shop.

    The nice thing about FIRST is that the robots are big. They require more than a code side of things. They require structure, stress analysis, and creating things that don’t exist already. My favorite part of FIRST was when I was CAD director, the team would say “we want to do this” and it was my job to figure out how to create the desired motion or action. It also teaches you not to screw up your design, and make sure it works *before* you build it. If a majority of your robot is made using a mill and lathe, chances are you won’t have the time or resources to redesign your mechanisms on the fly, so they better work right the first time. This is not the case with botball.

  6. That is true. I’d probably have less of an issue with FIRST if my school was in the competition. I think it’s probably more of an issue with funding for us, we had to fund-raise most of our botball entry fee this year. I did not know that there was an autonomous portion of FIRST, and I’m more on the coding side of things, so I’d be less into a hardware competition.

  7. nice to see a FIRST robotics post here :]. We just won our regionals out here in Hawaii the past weekend xD. Our robot has a simple design, but is fully functional. I programmed a ps2 controller too, those joystick looked too ugly for me xD.
    -team 2467

  8. FIRST is a non-competitive robot competition for babies; the scoring system discourages beating the other team by too wide of a margin, and all the robots end up looking and working the same because the rules are so restrictive. Not to mention how badly they rip you off by requiring that you use “official” parts, which cost twice as much as their “unofficial” equivalents. Anyone who advocates joining a FIRST team has either never been on a FIRST team, or is a shill for the organization.

  9. We were just at a competition in Drexel the past weekend. It was hot as anything inside the gym, but still a good time. Our ‘bot almost beat the two powerhouses there, but during the match both partners malfunctioned :(. Oh well, FIRST still has an awesome robot competition league set up.

  10. @Devin

    I agree that some of the official parts are annoying. However, that’s more for an equal playing field than anything, so that teams with absurd amounts of money don’t utterly demolish smaller teams. On the flip side, they give you the majority of the official parts. The only parts you *have* to use are their motors and their control board, really. The control boards obviously need to be the same, but that doesn’t eliminate any custom circuitry to interface with the official board. The motors really need to be the same, because it’s hard to source small amounts of motors some times, and a crazy overpowered drivetrain via non-stock motors could make or break a team at a competition. All the other parts are up to their teams. There’s also a material limit of $3000 (not including kit parts). I know from my teams, we used tons of 80/20, carbon fiber parts that we molded, non-kit sensors, and absurd amounts of custom machined parts. It’s 6 weeks of hell, but it’s a fun hell.

    -team 1272 and 1331, (both no longer exist, sadly)

  11. I was at the LA Regional as a mentor for my old high school team.

    I agree that FIRST has its issues, mainly regarding a scoring system that took a college Engineering major a good week to figure out, but more importantly, they outsource to WPI for code manuals, most of which are still unfinished.

    Some rules are very restrictive, and you CAN buy “non-official” parts as long as they are readily available to all teams. With this game, teams were joking about how you could actually use a human foot as your kicker, but that this would violate the rules as any one given human being will ((usually)) only have two feet, and therefore could not provide feet to more than two teams.

    The problems we saw this past weekend (and down in San Diego, as well) was that teams were paired in their alliances in a very random, but seemingly unfair, order. At the SD regional, we faced the #1 and #2 ranked teams on more than one occasion, and sometimes they would be paired together, against us.

    Also, field errors abounded this year, which actually cost us our Quarterfinal birth in SD, as we couldn’t connect to our bot in the last match.

    There are plenty of problems with every competition of all natures, but I really do like FIRST. Could use some improvement, but it’s the biggest HS robotics comp out there.

  12. “Anyone who advocates joining a FIRST team has either never been on a FIRST team, or is a shill for the organization.”


    I’m sorry you had such a bad experience with FIRST. I’ve had a great experience with it. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

  13. we were also at the okc regional (team 2777) we didnt score very high or anything but the kids enjoyed the competition and their robot did exactly what they wanted it to do so i see it as a win all around. I know we had one match with you (88) which was a tie. congrats on pushing up so high!

  14. We’ve got a group in FTC here that is hopefully going onto the Worlds down in Atlanta – and I wish them luck.

    Although I must say I don’t understand why of all programming FTC has that people love LabVIEW. It looks way too clunky to use and more confusing than straight-up RobotC.

    And this year’s FTC was a lot better than last years’ although still a technical trainwreck – last year’s event SHOULD have ended at 9 but went on until almost midnight+ due to the endless connection issues between bricks and the master stations – and this year the secondary team we had ended up unable to compete because their laptop crapped the bed (no thanks to the crappily programmed control “station” required on each machine).

    How bad is it in FRC in comparison? I’d love to be part of an FRC team but all we’ve got are FTC/FLL teams here.

  15. @baobrien: FIRST goes way beyond the robot. Other competitions are about the robots themselves, and they have no higher purpose. FIRST is different because it is about starting a culture shift. The goal isn’t to build a machine, but to build people. It really is quite refreshing to see that FIRST has kept the playing field level enough that a rookie team can enter and win.

    @TC: I agree with you about LabVIEW. FRC2586 uses Java exclusively. It downloads to the robot in a tiny fraction of the time a LabVIEW app would deploy, and its IDE (NetBeans; wish it was Eclipse) is fairly swift in comparison. Plus, there’s no stupid licensing issues. The first week events are always bumpy control-wise; the event organizers have gotten significantly more competent at keeping the event moving, though.

    Overall, FRC is pretty intense, and I would suggest it.

    -6th year FIRST member; 1 year on 1140, 3 years on 68, 2 years on 2586 as a mentor. I’ve seen this program transform a few dozen kids firsthand, and I haven’t seen anything like it anywhere else.

  16. @Devin

    looks like someone has an ax to grind, eh?

    anyways, the rules are a beast on their own. I can understand rules that try limit what can go into the robot (parts and money mostly as some teams can have a budget approaching $100,000 per year) so that teams that can barely get by in just registering don’t get slaughtered. some team also have better resources and know how and where to pick better motors.

    as far as rules being more restrictive or pushing robots into very similar configuration, i can say that i am disappointed in this regard for the past 2 years. i do not like being forced to use a specific wheel (rules out various drive systems). the rules (and feild) this year pretty much forced everyone to have a low, ball ‘kicking’ robot. it wasn’t as open to things to do and how to accomplish them. another negative side effect of this is that when you want to look at robots, everything to so jam packed that you it is hard not to be in the way when looking at it in the pits. i know past robots have everything packed in alot, but i can only imagine what is must be like when everything exists below ~16″ when i comes to servicing the robot. another thing, i must admit the human ‘player’ is a joke this year.

  17. @JBotAlan

    The “culture shift” aspect is another thing I disliked about FIRST. I joined my team intending to build robots, not to be “transformed” as a person, or to listen to Dean Kamen preach engineering like it’s the gospel. Plenty of the people on my team weren’t planning on going on to be engineers, and they felt alienated by this as well. That, along with the “gracious professionalism” bullshit, is what made me hate FIRST and not want to be an engineer. We were highschoolers; we didn’t want to cooperate, we wanted to see robots kill each other.

  18. Everyone has valid points on their posts.

    Botball is better robotics tournament. The game is not just about building and programming a completely autonomous robot, but also documenting the process and preparing students for a professional environment.

    First is more of a building challenge. To see who can come up with the best device and then drive it the best.

    I would argue that Botball is easier for rookie teams since, there is a little less of a learning curve documentation wise, and the game is designed so that a team with a simple plan carried out reliably can beat a team with a complex strategy that only works part of the time.

    The beauty of Botball is that it forces the students to become more proactive in the process since everything is done by the teams, and mentors are only there as high level coaches.

    This year at the Oklahoma regional Botball tournament, I saw sixth graders compete at the same level as high school seniors and the overall winner was a 6,7,8th grade team.

    I only typed this rant because I am disappointed when people group all of the engineering challenges together under robotics. I will reiterate an earlier post I made that if there is someone using a remote control to run a device, it should not be called a robot. I understand that there is an optional autonomous period, but if you robot can not fully function with out a driver it is just a RC toy.

  19. @JBotAlan
    I was at Troy over the weekend, congrats on making it to semis
    @Bob Jones
    If the challenge for FIRST one year was to be fully autonomous, teams would do it, but as it stands, that just isn’t the way to go. However, that will probably never happen, one of FIRSTs new things is making sure every robot can make it to the field and compete, and a complex task like full autonomy would be difficult for new teams

  20. I was in the Arizona regional it was my first time and it was amazing it really re-asserted my love of engineering. Since I’m not a student next year I will be coming back as a mentor next year because I loved it so much. I’ll be joining the team I was with this year even though I am moving to California. I would’t miss it for the world. So if your not in high school anymore become a mentor for a local team it will be very rewarding. If your in high school become a part of this its one of the best things you will do during highschool.

  21. I was upset at all of those things too at first but then my teacher who had been an engineer for motorola explained it. They give you such tight rules is because when engineering the people you are working for give you a list of things they want a device to do they then give you a set of parameters you cannot exceed and you must figure out a way to do that and that is final. The reason they push engineering is because that is exactly what you are doing when your are building the robot every bit of it even the programming. I don’t get how the gracious professionalism upsets anyone because it just tells you to be a good person and help others in need so I hope your a troll or you have some social problems to deal with also I do not work for first or know anyone who does and I actually enjoyed the experience of first.

  22. looks like the rules have changed a bit since i was in there. foam bumpers on everything? dang.

    oh man, what a walk through reminderville, reading about first robotics.

    i hope they keep this comp going, our team went under because our principle sponsor evaporated, hopefully other teams are having better luck in these tough times.

  23. I mentor a team called The Black Knights from Fairview. They are one of three teams from the Denver regionals going to Nationals in two weeks! The kids are stoked, but they’re spending next year’s seed money to go. If anyone would like to contribute to The Black Knights rockin’ Robotics Team, please visit their website!


  24. I have competed in First for multiple years this year i got to mentor a team for the first time and let me tell you this event tests all your skills.. you want to talk about hacking, or modding, you should see what people come up with to do the tasks its insane.. plus free software is a bounus..

  25. FIRST is a bigger picture than has been covered here. It goes beyond engineering and cooperation and promoting science and engineering. Long before Kick-off, our team is busy organizing, working out who will function best in each area. There is the huge component of marketing and fund raising – BIG fund raising – that many other competitions might require but do not recognize as part of the process. Marketing and fund raising are a huge part of innovative engineering and the experience is invaluable. There’s even recognition for web design skill – on trend, current and an example of the broad view FIRST takes on the whole process.
    Our kids gain experience in all of these areas. I think most importantly, they gain a respect for the talent others might have in areas where they themselves might not excel. How great of a life lesson is that? How many of us wish for that in our own work place as adults?
    I am also appreciative of FRC’s continued work to keep the ‘sports’ component to a minimum while still recognizing its appeal. Teaching sportsmanship in ALL areas, including those outside of ‘sports’ is phenomenal. “Coopertition” – I love it!

  26. What Kim said is basically what I wanted to say.

    I’m a 935 alumnus and mentor. I’m a little depressed I went to KC with them and not OKC (my brother got married that weekend! :D) Anyway, I’m very proud of them and their two cohorts for winning.

    I’m always happy to hear about rookie teams doing so well. Hearing vets helping them also makes me ecstatic! FIRST’s support of inter-team relations is what really made the program stand out for me, after all! “Graceful Professionalism.” The kids write essays about how it’s impacting for life, but it really WILL stay with me forever.

  27. I’m a FIRST student right now, and i found that it was really an eye-opening experiance because we would have only 6 weeks to build a robot, and with that what has happend for all three years so far of our team is that our prototypes are not really prototypes any more.

    our first year, we used an IR remote and sensor, where i made the electronics and logic circuits for that, all on proto board promising every day that i would fix it, all the way to competition, where it fell apart after we accidental drove about 25~ mph into the wall and there was a noticeable “CRUNCH” as our battery fell our of its holder and smash half of our electronics (thanks to all the teams wh gave us some spares :D)

    so really hacking is FIRST and FIRST is hacking, because when you have only 6 weeks to make a robot from scratch, you don’t have enough time to think your way through before hand, you do your thinking as you go.

    another great thing about FIRST is that i now have a job RIGHT after high school (actually when i turn 18, which is two days after i graduate) programming in python, c,c++ and c# (ill be working with them on making all their in house tools co-operate together, and every programmer used their own language of choice… FUN :P)

    team 2517 lead programmer/electronics
    founder and now that competition is over only a mentor…

  28. My team was 3389. I couldn’t afford to go. D:

    But I look forward to going in first period today and seeing how my teacher and Fellow senior did! (and to see if he strangled that annoying junior in my manufacturing class, lol)

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