[Editor’s note: At Adafruit we’re having some FIRST robotics participants post up on Adafruit, Today’s is from Harry – here’s a quick note about him ” I’m 17 years old, have been involved in FIRST LEGO League in various ways for 8 years. I’m currently a junior in college majoring in Physics, but will be transferring to a different school in the fall to pursue a degree in Electrical Engineering. In my spare time I work on various Open Hardware projects, which can be found at https://github.com/hjohnson“]
Early on a Saturday morning (5:40 AM to be exact) a small group of dedicated volunteers, including me, arrived at a university’s field house. We moved quickly, setting up breakfast, making coffee, triple-checking our preparations, and taking a collective deep breath. We knew that in an hour, over 500 middle school students and their mentors would arrive, and that we’d be running on adrenaline for the next 12 hours. Such is the life of an inner-circle FIRST LEGO League event volunteer.
FIRST LEGO League is an international robotics competition for 9-14 year olds run by the organization founded by inventor Dean Kamen, of insulin pump and Segway fame. Teams of students build and program LEGO autonomous robots that compete on a standardized 4’ x 8’ table covered with LEGO field models. Since the theme of the competition this year was food safety, a typical mission would be for the robot to retrieve a truck filled with groceries, allowing the students to remove the groceries, load them onto their robot, and deliver them to a kitchen table. Teams have 2.5 minutes to rack up points completing as many tasks as possible, in any order. During the season, the teams also research a topic related to the year’s theme, and create a 5-minute presentation to discuss their results. Teams in the USA bring their robots and presentations to state and regional competitions in an effort to advance, either to the international World Festival held in St. Louis, or one of the FLL Open tournaments.
At our state tournament, judging started at around 7:30. Things were pretty quiet while the teams were in judging, but then at 11:30, everything ramped back up again. The 54 teams paraded into the main competition room, an indoor gym, complete with bleachers. Meanwhile, our group of referees huddled, going over last minute rule clarifications and making sure that any first-time referees were matched with veterans. We all wore the classic referee zebra shirts and carried pencils, clipboards, and scoring sheets. Some of us also wore silly hats to humanize us for the kids; I dislike goofy hats, so donned a top hat. At noon, the main spectator event began, a mass of music, excited shrieking students, and robots. At a given instant four teams would be on the clock, the kids jumping out of their seats as the robot worked, or sitting in crushed defeat when it didn’t. Meanwhile, at the other two tables, the referees scored the field with the teams, filling out checkboxes on a score sheet, getting them verified by the team, sending them to the scorekeepers, getting the current team out, resetting the field, and bringing the new team in. All in about 4 minutes. When my table was active, I had to keep a kindly but vigilant eye on the teams and their robots and enforce the robot game’s rules. These rules included: penalizing teams for touching the robot if it was anywhere but home base; noting field damage caused by errant robots; and correcting field damage caused by overexcited children; among many others.
This whole cycle repeated until each of the teams had been run through 3 times, which took around 4 hours. By this point, I’d been on my feet on concrete for about 10 hours. We broke down all of the tables, packed them away, and sat in the bleachers to watch the final awards ceremony. Then, as teams filed out of the building, we finished cleaning up. Finally, at 6:00, we shuffled out of the building, exhausted but happy that we’d pulled off another tournament.