Helping Elon Musk

I was seated in a high school athletics auditorium, surrounded by hordes of chanting kids. They were chanting for blood and victory and pneumatic controllers. Before us lay a scene of competing factions trying to assist mankind’s deep space ambitions by demonstrating their robots for quickly loading cargo into rocket ships. Highly skilled pilots stood at either end of the arena. They’d trained for this moment.

Each team’s 3 worker bots were buzzing to and fro. Blue team’s bot held a valuable cargo ball in its pincer grips, while it attempted to navigate to an open rocket ship. It fumbled and dropped the ball, due to an accidentally vicious ram from behind by a red bot. Blue regained its composure and circled around to pick up another piece of cargo from nearby. Red rammed it again, this time squeezing it against the fence in an effective and time-consuming blocking manoeuvre. Meanwhile, red’s other 2 bots were successfully stocking their own ships with other cargo balls. Red finished their mission first and successfully recalled their bots back to home base. The crowd went wild. Red had won the day and would progress to the next round of competition against another set of determined high schoolers.

This was the 2019 New York City Regional FIRST Robotics Competition. I attended on a whim because … well … it’s robots and rocket ships; what’s not to like? They do a different theme/goal each year, and this one was called Deep Space. The space theme was just for flavour, but it made the whole thing seem much cooler. The goal was ostensibly to use 3 planetary robots to seal the hatches on 2 space rockets, then load cargo into the rockets so that they could launch before a Martian sandstorm rendered the colonies useless. In reality, it was really more like robotic basketball, trying to put balls into hoops better than the other team. Sports ball for nerds.

I was impressed with the capabilities of the robots and the speed of the piloting. Apparently each team had received an identical kit with all necessary parts and a general sense of how to build the robots, but they were free to customise and optimise as they saw fit. I saw that some robots use pincers to grab the balls while others took a more sphincter-esque approach. Some had a tall arm for dunking the ball, while others had the ability to fart the ball into the air. Both approaches had their pros and cons, in the heat of the action. I’m not sure exactly what programming they used, but there was certainly some automated (perhaps pre-recorded) movements for the 1st 30 seconds of every match, when the pilots were blinded. After that, they were manually piloted like remote control cars (but way cooler because they had grippy robot arms and stuff).

There were multiple referees, and each match usually ended in a tense debate about fouls and score modifications. Finally, the TV screen would reveal a blue and red rocket trying to launch, with one of them lifting off first, thus signifying which team had one. It was hard not to get caught up in the hype and excitement, and it must have been a tremendous learning opportunity for the younglings. It felt like they really were helping Elon Musk load his Falcon Heavy for a trip to Mars.


– The game explained –

– Watch a bout from 2019 –

– Star Wars is sponsoring in 2020 –

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