Student-built robots vying for victory in Boston this weekend

FIRST Robotics Competition teams head for the playing field. Photo Credit: Argenis Apolinario.
FIRST Robotics Competition teams head for the playing field. Photo Credit: Argenis Apolinario.

My favorite sporting event of the year is in Boston this weekend: the FIRST Robotics Competition Regional Championship. Matches began yesterday afternoon, and they run through Saturday at Boston University’s Agannis Arena. They also stream live online.

firstcompTeams of high school students from around New England began building robots in January to play a game called “Aerial Assist”; each year, there’s a new game so that teams have to build a ‘bot from scratch. Aerial Assist involves carrying and tossing big inflatable exercise balls. There are both scoring robots and defense robots, and “alliances” of three robots that earn bonus points for working together, rather than trying to rack up goals on their own. (This video explains the rules of Aerial Assist.) If you haven’t been before, it’s an amazing event — teams dress up in costumes, and there’s the same high-energy vibe you get at a Celtics game. (At right is a photo I shot at last year’s regional championship.)

Here’s the schedule for Friday and Saturday’s matches. The championship takes place in St. Louis later in April.

I was up in New Hampshire in snowy January for the kick-off of this year’s FIRST competition; FIRST was founded in 1989 by inventor Dean Kamen and MIT engineering professor Woodie Flowers.

“The robot is an excuse to put world-class people in an environment that’s positive,” Flowers told the crowd at the kick-off, noting that engineers and designers from some of the country’s most innovative companies serve as mentors to the students. “Our aim is to change their future and change this country’s future.” More than 350,000 students participate in FIRST’s various programs, and FIRST will award more than $19 million in college scholarships this year to students who participate.

Here’s a video FIRST created for this year’s competition kick-off; a more star-studded video, with, Miley Cyrus, Jack Black, and Steven Tyler is here.

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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