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Thursday, 12 May 2011

How FIRST Works-FIRST Lego League

Younger minds long for a good bout of competitive robot building as well, so in 1998 FIRST created the FIRST Lego League through a partnership with the Lego Group. Specifically, kids in grades four through eight build Lego robots aimed at surmounting challenges based on real-world scientific topics ranging from nanotechnology to climate change.

Each FIRST Lego League challenge features two parts: a robot game and a project. With the help of an adult coach, teams of up to 10 children program an autonomous robot to score points on a themed playing field in two minutes and 30 seconds. This is the game portion of the challenge, in which both the robots and the field itself use Lego parts.

The project portion of the challenge is based more in research and innovation. Each team develops a solution to a problem they identify, such as solving a local problem with nanotechnology. From here, teams can choose to attend an official tournament.

Geared for ages 9-14, FIRST Lego League chooses its challenge topics in order to expose young minds to potential scientific career paths and encourage good sportsmanship, teamwork, hands-on technical experience and community involvement. Lego League Teams enjoy lower costs and longer build times than traditional FIRST teams and often stem from a variety of school and nonschool programs such as 4-H, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Boys and Girls Clubs, YWCA, YMCA, religious organizations and neighborhood groups.

A mere 210 teams participated in the FIRST Lego League's inaugural year in 1998, but that number has skyrocketed over the years to 14,000-plus in more than 50 countries. That's a lot of Lego bricks!

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

How FIRST Works -The Kit of Parts

Once you've formed your team, raised your funding and paid your registration fee, then it's on to the January kickoff meeting. Here, FIRST announces the challenge for the year, releases manuals and ships out the infamous kit of parts.

Each team gets the same kit, composed of the various technological bits and pieces that will become a team's robot: motors, sensors, shafts, bearings, a radio receiver, a battery power pack, a multichannel radio control system and various control system essentials.

Teams also are allowed to purchase certain approved extra items. With these parts, a team can begin the design process. Here, students have the chance to be as creative and innovative as possible, provided the robot contains three basic elements:

1. A set of wheels that can move it around on the field of play. Hey, you're not going to win just standing there, right?

2. A frame to hold all the motors, wheels, batteries and additional parts together. Work that robot into shape!

3. Arms or movers to carry out game activities.

Let's explore that last requirement a tad closer. Some FIRST challenges require the robot to gather balls and move them toward the end of the field. How might a robot design handle this? It might throw the balls with arms, shoot them down conveyer belts or hit them with a paddle. As long as the robot has a means of carrying out required tasks, it's good to go.

Time flies in FIRST. As you might remember, teams typically have about six weeks to turn a kit of parts into a working robot. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) publishes a very useful guide that recommends the following plan for the six-week construction cycle:

Week 1: Design the robot.

Week 2: Design and prototype the robot's subsystems.

Weeks 3 and 4: Build the subsystems.

Week 5: Integrate the subsystems to build the robot.

Week 6: Test and practice.

Even assuming the team doesn't make a serious mistake, this is an extremely intense schedule. But it's also one of the things that makes FIRST such a challenging and rewarding experience.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

How FIRST Works-Forming a Team

Students have a lot to gain from robotics programs like FIRST. They work with professional engineers, develop team-building skills and get their hands dirty with some actual robotic construction, programming and problem solving -- all while potentially having the time of their lives. (Did we mention that teams may travel to other cities for competitions without Mom and Dad necessarily in tow?)

But in order for all this to happen, these adventure-bound young men and women either have to find a FIRST team or build one from scratch. Here's what every new FIRST team needs:

Two or three professional engineers: These volunteers play an essential role in any FIRST robotics team. They use their technical expertise to guide students through all the engineering, design and construction challenges involved in the construction of a competitive robot.

Two or three additional adults: There's more to FIRST than nuts, bolts and circuit boards, so you'll need additional volunteers to handle all the nontechnical demands. This means organizing and communicating with FIRST itself, registering for events, fundraising, shipping and making travel arrangements. Established FIRST teams often depend on additional volunteers for everything from Web design to bookkeeping.

Financial sponsors: FIRST teams have to leverage thousands of dollars to compete. The 2010 registration fee (which covered parts and participation in one event) was $6,500 for rookie teams and $5,000 for veteran teams who reused parts from previous events. Teams could then register for additional events at a price of $4,000 each. This is where all the volunteer work comes in handy. FIRST recommends raising between $15,000 and $30,000 in order to participate in two to three regional competitions through corporate donations and school fund-raising efforts.

Space, tools and time: Yes, teams will need the time, tools and space to design, build, program and test a working robot. This means access to a machine shop, secure storage space and enough room to safely practice. You'll also need hand tools, power tools and machine tools. As far as time goes, FIRST recommends that teams meet several times a week from mid-December to the end of April. Some of the more experienced teams meet year-round and compete in offseason events.

Fifteen to 25 high-school-aged students: Finally, remember the old adage, "the more the merrier." More students means more opportunities for your FIRST team, so open the doors to anyone supported by the school principal and parent volunteers.

Monday, 9 May 2011

How FIRST Works-FIRST Basics

The FIRST Robotics Competition stands at the heart of the entire organization. Here, specially designed robots compete against each other in short games such as Lunacy, a kind of robots-only basketball for the circuit board set. Each robot, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg. A team of high school students, along with a handful of mentoring engineers and teachers, constructs each machine, and the students themselves program and remotely control the robots during play.

It all begins each fall, when FIRST teams form and work toward the annual FIRST Robotics Competition kickoff in early January. This signals the beginning of the six-week build season, as teams work toward participation in FIRST Robotics Competition regional events, typically involving a 40-to-70-team throwdown at a university arena. The winners advance to a championship event to finish the season.

Fans, judges and referees oversee each competition, but the playing fields themselves are restricted during competition: no humans allowed. It's more than just a point game, however, as the judges evaluate teams and hand out awards for design, technology, sportsmanship and commitment to FIRST. In fact, the highest honor, The Chairman's Award, singles out the team that exemplifies the values of FIRST.

Since 1992, the FIRST Robotics Competition has grown from 28 teams to more than 2,200 projected for 2011.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

How FIRST Works- Introduction

In case you haven't noticed, the robots have already taken over. No longer confined to industrial assembly lines, they assist human surgeons, patrol hostile skies and even drive around town. They grow up so fast, don't they?

The robotics field continues to worm its way into every aspect of our lives, but these advancements aren't self-sustaining. The fields of robotics, engineering and science depend on a steady pipeline of young minds.

This is where the FIRST organization comes in: For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. Founded in 1989 by famed inventor Dean Kamen, the not-for-profit program aims to mold young people into the science and technology leaders of tomorrow.
FIRST Robotics
Image courtesy FIRST Robotics
Robots take to the playing field

It's also a lot of fun because, hey, FIRST ultimately boils down to a kind of do-it-yourself robot Olympics. In the organization's own words, it's a "varsity sport for the mind." High school-aged young people from around the world form teams with like-minded cohorts, learn from adult mentors and then build the best robots they can for good-natured, character-building competition.

In this article, we'll take a good look at the basics behind FIRST, how a team rises to the top and what goes on at the national championships.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Robots and Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) is arguably the most exciting field in robotics. It's certainly the most controversial: Everybody agrees that a robot can work in an assembly line, but there's no consensus on whether a robot can ever be intelligent.

Like the term "robot" itself, artificial intelligence is hard to define. Ultimate AI would be a recreation of the human thought process -- a man-made machine with our intellectual abilities. This would include the ability to learn just about anything, the ability to reason, the ability to use language and the ability to formulate original ideas. Roboticists are nowhere near achieving this level of artificial intelligence, but they have made a lot of progress with more limited AI. Today's AI machines can replicate some specific elements of intellectual ability.

Computers can already solve problems in limited realms. The basic idea of AI problem-solving is very simple, though its execution is complicated. First, the AI robot or computer gathers facts about a situation through sensors or human input. The computer compares this information to stored data and decides what the information signifies. The computer runs through various possible actions and predicts which action will be most successful based on the collected information. Of course, the computer can only solve problems it's programmed to solve -- it doesn't have any generalized analytical ability. Chess computers are one example of this sort of machine.

Some modern robots also have the ability to learn in a limited capacity. Learning robots recognize if a certain action (moving its legs in a certain way, for instance) achieved a desired result (navigating an obstacle). The robot stores this information and attempts the successful action the next time it encounters the same situation. Again, modern computers can only do this in very limited situations. They can't absorb any sort of information like a human can. Some robots can learn by mimicking human actions. In Japan, roboticists have taught a robot to dance by demonstrating the moves themselves.

Some robots can interact socially. Kismet, a robot at M.I.T's Artificial Intelligence Lab, recognizes human body language and voice inflection and responds appropriately. Kismet's creators are interested in how humans and babies interact, based only on tone of speech and visual cue. This low-level interaction could be the foundation of a human-like learning system.

Kismet and other humanoid robots at the M.I.T. AI Lab operate using an unconventional control structure. Instead of directing every action using a central computer, the robots control lower-level actions with lower-level computers. The program's director, Rodney Brooks, believes this is a more accurate model of human intelligence. We do most things automatically; we don't decide to do them at the highest level of consciousness.

The real challenge of AI is to understand how natural intelligence works. Developing AI isn't like building an artificial heart -- scientists don't have a simple, concrete model to work from. We do know that the brain contains billions and billions of neurons, and that we think and learn by establishing electrical connections between different neurons. But we don't know exactly how all of these connections add up to higher reasoning, or even low-level operations. The complex circuitry seems incomprehensible.

Because of this, AI research is largely theoretical. Scientists hypothesize on how and why we learn and think, and they experiment with their ideas using robots. Brooks and his team focus on humanoid robots because they feel that being able to experience the world like a human is essential to developing human-like intelligence. It also makes it easier for people to interact with the robots, which potentially makes it easier for the robot to learn.

Just as physical robotic design is a handy tool for understanding animal and human anatomy, AI research is useful for understanding how natural intelligence works. For some roboticists, this insight is the ultimate goal of designing robots. Others envision a world where we live side by side with intelligent machines and use a variety of lesser robots for manual labor, health care and communication. A number of robotics experts predict that robotic evolution will ultimately turn us into cyborgs -- humans integrated with machines. Conceivably, people in the future could load their minds into a sturdy robot and live for thousands of years!

In any case, robots will certainly play a larger role in our daily lives in the future. In the coming decades, robots will gradually move out of the industrial and scientific worlds and into daily life, in the same way that computers spread to the home in the 1980s.

The best way to understand robots is to look at specific designs. The links on the next page will show you a variety of robot projects around the world.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Homebrew Robots

In the last couple of sections, we looked at the most prominent fields in the world of robots -- industry robotics and research robotics. Professionals in these fields have made most of the major advancements in robotics over the years, but they aren't the only ones making robots. For decades, a small but passionate band of hobbyists has been creating robots in garages and basements all over the world.

Homebrew robotics is a rapidly expanding subculture with a sizable Web presence. Amateur roboticists cobble together their creations using commercial robot kits, mail order components, toys and even old VCRs.

Homebrew robots are as varied as professional robots. Some weekend roboticists tinker with elaborate walking machines, some design their own service bots and others create competitive robots. The most familiar competitive robots are remote control fighters like you might see on "BattleBots." These machines aren't considered "true robots" because they don't have reprogrammable computer brains. They're basically souped-up remote control cars.

More advanced competitive robots are controlled by computer. Soccer robots, for example, play miniaturized soccer with no human input at all. A standard soccer bot team includes several individual robots that communicate with a central computer. The computer "sees" the entire soccer field with a video camera and picks out its own team members, the opponent's members, the ball and the goal based on their color. The computer processes this information at every second and decides how to direct its own team.

Check out the official RoboCup Web site for more information on Soccer robots, and Google > Computers > Robotics > Competitions for information on other robot competitions. Google > Computers > Robotics > Building will give you more information on building your own robots.

Adaptable and Universal
The personal computer revolution has been marked by extraordinary adaptability. Standardized hardware and programming languages let computer engineers and amateur programmers mold computers to their own particular purposes. Computer components are sort of like art supplies -- they have an infinite number of uses.

Most robots to date have been more like kitchen appliances. Roboticists build them from the ground up for a fairly specific purpose. They don't adapt well to radically new applications.

This situation may be changing. A company called Evolution Robotics is pioneering the world of adaptable robotics hardware and software. The company hopes to carve out a niche for itself with easy-to-use "robot developer kits."

The kits come with an open software platform tailored to a range of common robotic functions. For example, roboticists can easily give their creations the ability to follow a target, listen to voice commands and maneuver around obstacles. None of these capabilities are revolutionary from a technology standpoint, but it's unusual that you would find them in one simple package.

The kits also come with common robotics hardware that connects easily with the software. The standard kit comes with infrared sensors, motors, a microphone and a video camera. Roboticists put all these pieces together with a souped-up erector set -- a collection of aluminum body pieces and sturdy wheels.

These kits aren't your run-of-the-mill construction sets, of course. At upwards of $700, they're not cheap toys. But they are a big step toward a new sort of robotics. In the near future, creating a new robot to clean your house or take care of your pets while you're away might be as simple as writing a BASIC program to balance your checkbook.