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04/01/2010 - Area High Schools Join Robotics Competition

The noise in Seattle's Key Arena was deafening. Cheering squads wearing carefully designed team colors cheered, danced, waved light swords, and generally celebrated. Team gymnasts performed cart wheels, flips, and splits in front of the crowd. When the loud speaker wasn't carrying the play-by-play, the music was at rock concert decibels. Through it all, the players remained quiet and focused. The event was "Breakaway", the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics 2010 robot soccer tournament. The competitors were specifically designed and built robots being driven by teams of students from about sixty-four high schools from Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, and Turkey. Spokane high schools competing included 3-year veterans East, Central, and West Valley, and 1-year ex-rookie Lewis & Clark. Liberty High School from Spangle also compet ed.

The game is complex. Each game lasts 2 minutes and 15 seconds, and the winning team will have scored the most points by kicking or pushing a soccer ball through a goal and/or by hoisting a robot up on a tower in the middle of the court 'without doing any of a dozen different things that may cause a penalty to be issued. Each team is 3 robots, from 3 schools, playing against 3 robots from 3 other schools. A full day and a half was spent playing seeding matches. Points were given to individual robots (or subtracted depending on penalties) via a special computer algorithm. At the end of the seeding matches, the computer designated the eight top seeds. These eight teams created "alliances" by choosing two other teams to join them for the final tournament. The alliances played together as teams from then on, using the usual tournament brackets used for basketball, until the final winner was declared.&n bsp; The winners will travel as a team to Atlanta for the national tournament.

To play Breakaway, the court is divided into 3 distinct zones separated by "bumps". At the beginning of the game, one robot will be on offense, one robot will be on defense, and one robot will be in the middle zone. During a game, the middle robot can cross the bump and aid their offensive robot, but only one defensive robot is ever allowed in an end zone. Penalties may be accrued for various infractions, but the most grievous is "unsportsmanlike conduct". This includes trying deliberately to upset an opposing robot, pinning an opposing robot in a corner, and deliberately knocking an opposing robot out of the way. There were plenty of accidental robot-to-robot encounters, and a goodly many robots tipped over without any help from an opposing team.

With all robots in position, the game was started by the master operations computer. The master computer sent a wireless signal to the robots which then moved autonomously for the first 20-seconds of the game. At the end of that time, the master computer sent another signal that activated the teams' game stations, and the students took over the driving of the robots. At the end of the playing period, the master computer halted the game. Then the judges assessed the number of goals, subtracting any penalties, and declared a winning team.

Robots ranged from minimum size and flat, to tall and ornate. Play was always amusing. Some robots stayed where they were placed from the start 'refusing to move. The taller robots were more susceptible to overbalancing and tipping onto their sides. Robots got soccer balls caught beneath their chassis, and the drivers had to try many maneuvers to free the robots. Some tried to climb over the bump, and tipped over. Some tried and succeeded. The LC "Cyber Tiger" succeeded in hoisting itself on the center tower several times, to massive cheering by all. The West Valley robot was in a final alliance. All plan to participate again next year.

The FIRST-WA regional tournament was initiated ten years ago, but the number of schools participating skyrocketed within the last two years. Some of the participating teams are huge, others small with just ten or twelve students. Sponsors of the regional event gave out some $60,000 in college scholarships to three participating students.

The FIRST competition isn't just about robots, engineering and technology. More than twenty awards are given for an impressive array of accomplishments. The Woodie Flowers Award is given for communication skills, is based on a student essay, and is for the mentor of the year. The Entrepreneurship Award is given for the team with the best business plan. Team Spirit Award celebrates extraordinary enthusiasm and spirit 'contributing a great deal to the noise level in the arena. Along with this is the Imagery Award for visual integration of the robot with the team's appearance 'generally manifested in T-shirts in interesting colors bearing the team's name, sponsors, and motto. The Web Site Award is given for student-designed, built, and managed FIRST team Web sites. Other awards were given to Rookies 'teams in their first year of competition. Good sportsmanship awards were ha nded out. The awards did include eight different awards for engineering, design, and execution of the robots. Finally, and of rather less-seeming importance, were the trophies given for the 3 Regional Winners and 3 Regional Finalists.

The FIRST-WA regional competition has grown so large that the state organization plans to split into two regional events. The FIRST-WA team will be in Spokane within the next two weeks scouting the area as a possible venue. Such an undertaking will need a staff of volunteers. One could hardly find a more worthwhile, gratifying, or entertaining volunteer opportunity.

The LC robotics club thanks their sponsors: Triumph Group, Inc., Autodesk, LabView, NASA, Gonzaga University, Ciena, Process Engineers, Bezos Family Foundation, and IEEE. They plan to repeat their efforts in the next game for 2011, and issue an invitation for community mentors. People knowledgeable about science, technology, or engineering are especially needed. Anyone interested in being a mentor should contact Karen Shields, LC Robotics Club parent, at mailto:karenashields@gmail.com.

Billie Moreland
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