Screaming fans, loud music, excited high school students, professional mentors and precision robots all merged at the U.S. Cellular arena March 10 – 12, 2011, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This year’s competition challenge — design a robot to gather inflated rings and place them on pegs at various heights, ranging up to nine feet, and, then, raise the robot itself to 11 feet.
For the Brookfield East high school team, the B’Easts, Brookfield, Wisconsin, co-sponsored by the ABB New Berlin campus, the season began in October, with students training on various shop tools and exploring last year’s robot. In January, the annual challenge was released and teams had until the end of February to design and build their robots.
The high school is one of 40 Wisconsin Regional teams. FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded by Dean Kaman, inventor of the Segway, to encourage engineering and mechatronics among children and young adults. ABB’s sponsorship began in 2006, in concert with the support ABB Robotics provides to local teams on which employees work as mentors.
This year’s team was made up of: over 30 high school freshman-through-seniors; seven professional mentors, ranging from engineers to software designers; a faculty sponsor; and two team captains.
The entire program closely parallels a real-life engineering business, notes Rick Hepperla, who is leading the integration of ABB and Baldor. “All teams across the country meet at the same date and time to receive and read the specification. They are given parameters — weights and sizes of equipment, what tasks the equipment needs to achieve to score points. And, then, the team has to decide what they want to excel at — what the trade-offs are to score points. And, all teams are on the same timeline — six weeks — in which to create their robot, and turn it in for testing.”
“The students are required to brainstorm, design, fabricate, program and test the robot,” said Tim Obermann, Electrical Engineer for ABB Medium Voltage Drives, and a first-time mentor. “The mentors and captains encourage critical thinking and explore the choices the students have made.”
From conception to final assembly, 1000 man hours were put into this year’s design. Students met after school and on weekends to create the final robot. “It becomes a family,” said Obermann. “Students come when they can, work together, and create something that they can take pride in.”
The competition also reflects the way business partners work in concert, according to Hepperla. This year’s regional competition, held near downtown Milwaukee, included over 50 teams competing for the coveted grand prize.
Around a common field, teams are formed in alliances of three each, and compete in a series of heats; each team in the alliance keeps the score the alliance earned. In between these rounds of 2-minute matches, teams rush around in the “pits” to troubleshoot their robots.
Following the heats, the top eight teams compete over a day-and-half, double elimination, to establish the top team. This part of the competition includes teams inviting each other in a “random alliance,” focused on combining the best strengths of two teams — for example, one very strong offensively and, the second, defensively.
The general public was allowed to watch the competition and wander in the “pits” to see the robots up close. Although winning was on every team’s mind, a spirit of cooperation was encouraged. “Teams want to compete when competitors are at their best,” explained Obermann. “Many teams lent each other spare parts and services.”
After days of intensive matches, the B’Easts went undefeated through the qualifying rounds and took third place overall. In addition, the team received the Industrial Design Award, which celebrates form and function in an efficiently designed machine that effectively achieves the game challenge. It is given to the team that best presents and understands the design of their robot. “In some ways, this was the best award to get,” stated Obermann. “It shows that we, as mentors, did our job. The students not only completed the task very successfully, but learned a great deal, too.
“I challenge other professionals in the science and technology fields to volunteer in this program,” encourages Obermann. “These kids genuinely are interested in what we do; what a great opportunity to invest in the future!”