Pit Boss Reflects on Bot Challenge

Hi everyone, from BBQ to robots all in the same week! This past weekend I had the privilege to volunteer at the FIRST™ Robotics Competition (FRC) NY Tech Valley Regional at RPI.  And, I mean it was a privilege. It is amazing and inspirational watching and talking with all of the teams. Seeing them work together, competing against each other and at the same time cheering each other on. Seeing examples of gracious professionalism as teams helped each other with programming, robot repairs, sharing parts and equipment — it is awe-inspiring!

FIRST™ stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.” According to Dean Kamen, founder of FIRST, the group’s mission is to “inspire young people to be science and technology leaders, by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership.” FIRST reaches out to kids of all ages starting children as young as 6 years old with the FIRST Junior Lego™ League for grades K-3. They can then move on to FIRST Lego League for grades 4-8, FIRST Tech Challenge for grades 7-12 and the FIRST Robotics Competition for grades 9-12. According to their website, 367,655 kids participated in FIRST’s 2014 season — that is a lot of STEM!!

Each year a new challenge is created at each of the different levels. Students on FRC teams are given 6 weeks (from January through mid-February) to build a solution to the challenge.  Each team obtains a kit of allowable parts in order to keep the playing field level among the teams. Six weeks — that is truly a FastWorks program! What is really amazing is what the teams do with the parts of the kits. No two robots turn out the same. Each has its own look and configuration based on the strategy of each team’s inventors.

This year I was a robot inspector and I was in the pits watching all the teams working on their bots. As robot inspectors we are not there to find fault with anyone’s robot but instead we are there to inspect the robots for qualified parts, correct wiring schema, provide SW version control, and assure safety to other robots, people, and the playing field. If a team’s robot was not qualified, we worked with them to get it within spec and qualified so every team could compete.

The challenge this year was Recycle Rush. The robots had to stack gray totes on top of each other. If they could also place a green recycling container on top of the stack, they received extra points. Getting “litter” (in the shape of a pool noodle) into the recycling container garnered the teams even more points. There is a 15-second autonomous mode where the robot operates independently of the driver then a 2-minute 15-second tele-operated period.  Teams qualify in the first round and then form alliances based on each team’s strengths and weaknesses for the quarter-final, semi-final, and final rounds. For instance, one team may be able to stack totes with high reliability but cannot pick up recycling containers. They would want to be in an alliance with a team that had a configuration to easily pick up recycle containers so they could build complete stacks. In fact, the winning alliance scored big with this field worth over 180 points! You can see the entire event by clicking HERE to view the webcast.

robot-stacking at 2015 FIRST Robotics competition
Containers and “llitter” are stacked high by robots at the 2015 FIRST Robotics Competition
GE's Danielle-Merfeld at 2015 FIRST Robotics competition
GE Global Research Technology Director Danielle Merfeld speaking at opening ceremonies of the 2015 FIRST Robotics Competition.

GE had a table in the lobby showing 3D printing and robotics, manned by many volunteers including Bob Tait and Huan Tan. Thanks also to GE volunteers Mark Cheverton, Colton Robtoy, Vadim Bromberg, James Yang, and to everyone from the GE Global Research Additive Manufacturing and Robotics labs, for their onsite support.

GE also sponsored Teams 20 (Shenendehowa), 250 (Colonie), 3044 (Ballston Spa) and 340 (Rochester). On the competition field, Team 3044 captained the 7th-ranked alliance and made it into semifinals; Team 20 captained the 5th-ranked alliance and made it into finals; and Team 340 was picked into the 2nd-ranked alliance, which won the event. All three exceeded their own expectations.

Local Teams 3044 (Ballston Spa, top), 250 (South Colonie, bottom right) and 20 (Shenendehowa, bottom left) at the NY Tech Valley FIRST Robotics Competition

On the awards front, Teams 20 & 3044 had students selected as FIRST Dean’s List Finalists; Team 250 won the Industrial Safety Award and Team Spirit Award; and Team 20 won a Safety “Hard Hat” Award. Special thanks to Doug Wildes, GRC’s Team 20 mentor and FIRST Robotics Competition Lead for GE, for summarizing the results and providing these links.

Other honorable mentions that I personally loved go to Team 5240 from Utica, they must have heard about my SxSW adventure because they gave me a bottle homemade BBQ sauce! Team 263 which had a CRAZY, WILD, MANIC autonomous mode, throwing containers and slamming totes, Team 5240 from Clarkson which designed their robot collaboratively from remote locations with 3D parts and put it all together when they met for the first time, and HVCC which gave EVERY student local to this area a coupon to take a free 3-credit course at HVCC. That’s awesome!!!

GE-judges at 2015 FIRST Robotics competition
GE volunteers were among the judges at the 2015 FIRST Robotics Competition, including (from left) Prabjot Singh and Andrea Schmitz

In addition to the teams sponsored by GE, other local teams include: 4508 (Schuylerville), 2791 (Shaker), 1493 (Albany), 3687 (Schenectady), 1665 (Hudson), 5149 (Troy) and for all the proud parents of the local teams pictured here!

In closing, I urge you all to volunteer! If not at this event, then some other event. Helping a child learn math and science is one of the most rewarding things a person could do. It influences and will stay with them the rest of their lives!


  1. Ralf Buengener

    Thank you for sharing your experience, Lynn. It really was a great event! I was there as a volunteer, too and was surprised how exciting this seemingly boring task of stacking totes became. And it was a nice change to see what the “big kids” are doing before coming back to my own Jr. Lego League team in September.

  2. Berdj Joseph Rassam

    Sounds like an exciting robotics event.