Atlanta, Ga. – Roaring crowds are not unusual at the Georgia Dome.
But this crowd is not cheering on teams of football players.
It's watching teams of high school students from around the world - and their robots - fill up the Dome's entire playing field.
To the nearly 300 teams competing, this is the real deal.
It's the 12th annual “Robotics Competition” - sponsored by a group called FIRST, or “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.”
It's the brainchild of Dean Kamen, who's best-known as the inventor of the Segway transportation device.
Thousands of student teams try and compete in the event. A series of regional matches reduces the field of 900 teams to the finalists at the Georgia Dome.
Starting in January, the competing students have six weeks to build a robot that can successfully carry out the tasks announced.
This year, the major assignment is to get one's robot to pull itself up a 10-foot-tall bar, and stay there. Robots can also score points by passing foam balls to team members, who then have to shoot baskets.
For Matt Ellis, of Marietta's Wheeler High School, that meant his team's robot had to specialize.
“When we were putting our robot together,” he says, “We really wanted to concentrate on one of the tasks that we had to complete and try not to do everything. So, we decided to go for the bar, so now we have an arm that is probably one of the best ones, here. And we can consistently get the bar.”
At the Dome, the Wheeler High School team, called the Circuit Runners, is huddled in their team's pit.
All-told, the pit area takes up an entire convention hall. On the morning of the final competition, the pit is swarming with bright team t-shirts; face paint, Marti-Gras beads and temporary hair-dye - creating an atmosphere somewhere between a party, and a sporting event.
This is the second year the Circuit Runners have competed and made it to the Finals.
They've already won the highest possible award at the regional level, this year.
But Wheeler senior Joe Vandegrift says the award has nothing to do with their robot's mechanical abilities.
“The Chairman's Award is the biggest award,” he says. “It's for spreading the FIRST, just ideas around the community; it's an outreach program, basically. And it's like: How do you work well with children? How do you show the community what robotics is? That kind of thing. The Entrepreneurship Award is how well your planning goes to incorporate that kind of thing. Like, what are you plans for the future, acting like a corporation, that kind of thing?”
Far more than being just a robot-building match, Joe says the FIRST Robotics Competition places its strongest emphasis on concepts like teamwork, networking and service.
“We raised 45-thousand dollars for Georgia FIRST teams around the state, ” says Joe, “and we sponsored a lot of Lego-League Teams, which is the middle-school version of FIRST. And we took our robot around to a lot of elementary schools and a lot of day-cares and that kind of thing. ”
Besides outreach, a major component of the actual competition involves being coupled up with other teams at the competition--to compete against another pair.
Paris Stowers, another senior Wheeler student, says that adds to the spirit of the event.
“The Top-8 ranked teams, based on wins and loses and points, chooses alliance partners. So, the way it works is, the winning team can never have all Top-8 people, all people ranked Top-8. Robots pairing up with robots that would work well with them. So, that's part of the reason that you're up against someone in this match, but next match, you might be with them. So that's why there's such a helping spirit with others. ”
Cooperation may be stressed, but upstairs in the Dome, the action looks and feels as competitive as any sudden-death playoff game.
In this match, Atlanta's International School is paired with a team from Tacoma, Washington - to compete against another pair of teams.
As the 2-minute match begins, collaboration comes into play. The International School team immediately steers its robot toward the high bar, to go in for the hang, while its partner-team maneuvers the other robot to block their opponents from shooting baskets.
The strategy is successful - the International School and Tacoma win the match.
This is the team's last match. Although they won't go farther, the mood of the International School's Chris Mashikev is far from gloomy.
“We just played our last match and I used the arm really well, I'm really happy about that,” he says. “And our driver drove really well and I'm happy about that as well ,and then we won! And that was the best way to end the senior year - and now I just have to look forward to going to Cal Tech next year -and everything's just going well!”
As a matter of fact, Chris thinks his participation in the competition helped him get into the engineering school.
Meanwhile, back at the Circuit Runner's pit, the team's robot has run into some trouble.
“In our last match, one of the batteries died,” says Paris. “Like, went out completely. And the way the robot works, is, there's a little limit that, when the arm goes up, it automatically stops it when it gets to the top, but because the battery went out, the limit reset, and didn't know how high the arm was, and so the arm broke off, and broke the cable. So, right now, they're trying to repair the arm and figure out why the battery went out and where the leak in the electronics was that caused it.”
One of the missions of the Robotics competition is to eliminate the image of engineers as geeky, solitary workers. The Circuit-Runner's advisor, Jeff Rosen.
“It breaks every mold! It breaks the mold of the basic student vision of: Oh I'm an engineer; I'm going to be sitting alone in a room with a machine in front of me, and I tinker until I get it to work.' And for a lot of these kids, they're not the athletic type. And so they don't really feel as a part of the school as much. And here, they have the chance to use their brain, but also get the same accolades and the same excitement that the athletes get when you know, 15-20,000 people are out there cheering for you. ”
And yet, says Rosen, “it's not a combat. It's a task. ”
A task that has garnered the attention of top universities and corporations, who take part in the competition as donors and team-mentors.
“There are engineers who will tell you, I really learned a lot from working with these kids and this effort.' Because the kids today are different! I grew up in the Eighties I never had anything like this! ”
The competition also helps students grow in more areas than just engineering. Paris Stowers says it's shifted her interests from medicine, to business.
“I really like the organizing and planning and being in charge, so I want to go into business and one day start programs such as this. Like, start programs for girls at camps for kids, or that kind of thing. Like, based on my experience here. ”
Down in the pit, the Circuit-Runners manage to repair their robot with forty-five minutes to spare.
In the final results, the Wheeler Circuit Runners won an honorable mention as runner-up, for the National Chairman's Award. The International School team won the Rookie All-Star Award.