Forget the prospect of Amazon delivery drones and a future where falling in love with your OS might be a reality: Robots are already here among us. Where can you find them? Just ask a participant of FIRST Robotics.

This season, the high school-aged students compete in a “block party” game. Two randomly paired teams are pitted against a second “alliance” and set loose in a 12 by 12 foot arena to earn points through such tasks as transporting yellow plastic blocks to goal areas and baskets, balancing a pendulum goal, driving over and parking on a bridge, raising a flag and directing their robot to a pull up, suspending itself from a bar on the course.

The game begins with 30 seconds of autonomous play, for which the students have pre-programmed their robots, and is followed by a two-minute driver controlled period.

The entire two and a half minutes of play is an action packed, high-energy experience. Spectators, including parents, siblings, teachers and other FTC students, were cordoned off from the competition area but looked on with rapt and rowdy attention.

For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit public charity established in Manchester, N.H., in 1989 by inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen. The organization works to inspire young people’s interest and participation in science and technology through competitive, educational programs that stimulate interest in science, technology, engineering and math—all while building self-confidence, knowledge and life skills.

2014 Alamo FTC Championship at Rackspace. Photo by Miriam Sitz.
2014 Alamo FTC Championship at Rackspace. Photo by Miriam Sitz.

In 2010, San Antonio was selected as the home base for FIRST’s 44th official region, and the third in Texas; the Alamo Region. In 2012, The Rivard Report covered an FLL competition at Geekdom and last year highlighted the accomplishments of BioMed SA-sponsored FLL team “The Randomists.”

On Saturday, Feb. 8, Rackspace hosted the Alamo Region’s 2014 FIRST Tech Challenge Championship. “We (transformed) our Center into a robotics arena, and Rackers (helped) staff and judge the event,” said Monica Jacob, who works in public relations for Rackspace.

Participant Max Ulmer of The Randomists declared the 2014 Alamo FTC Championship one of the “most awesomest experiences” of his FIRST career.

More than 750 students from across South Texas gathered on Saturday, comprising the Alamo Region’s  top 60 teams, gathered to battle their robots in the FTC challenge. The mid-level robotics competition for high-school students marries science, technology, engineering and teamwork.

The Rivard Report caught up with The Randomists, an FTC rookie team of eighth graders. Last year, the team took the first place Champion’s Award at the Alamo FLL Regional Championship, and designed the “standalone cane” in a separate but related competition that had students create devices to improve the quality of life of senior citizens.

BioMed SA president Ann Stevens with The Randomists in 2013. Photo courtesy of BioMed SA.

The Randomists qualified for this year’s Alamo FTC Championship by earning the Connect Award at the Brackenridge High School “Brackenbot” qualifying tournament in January 2014, and then first place Inspire Award at a Roosevelt High School competition later that month.

The Randomists' 2013 FLL robot.  (Photo courtesy of Diane Clements)
The Randomists’ 2013 FLL robot.
Photo courtesy of Diane Clements.

“There are so many people,” said Randomist Nia Clements of the competition. “It’s just so much more fun than any completion that we’ve been to I think. The robots are so much bigger—for FLL they were tiny and here they’re massive.”

As one of the younger teams, she added, “And everyone is massive, because they’re all high schoolers!”

Teammate Madelyne Wilson described the team’s robot this year, which is more complex than the LEGO-based device they’ve competed with in the past: “We’re using the latest and greatest matrix components for our robot, so that was really hard because there weren’t a lot of resources, but it was also really fun having to try and figure it out with just ourselves and our coaches.”

The Randomists' 2014 FTC robot. Photo by Miriam Sitz.
The Randomists’ 2014 FTC robot. Photo by Miriam Sitz.

Fourteen teams out of the 60 participating this past weekend qualified for the FTC Super Regional event, a competition between teams from across the southern U.S. to take place at the Henry B. Gonzales Convention Center in San Antonio Feb.26 – 28.

From there, teams have a chance to advance to the World Championship event at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Mo. where they will face other domestic Super Regional winners and international championship tournament-winning teams.

2014 Alamo FTC Championship at Rackspace. Photo by Miriam Sitz.
2014 Alamo FTC Championship at Rackspace. Photo by Miriam Sitz.

The progression of FIRST programs starts early and follows students all the way through high school. Students between the ages of 6 and 9 (grades K to 3) can participate in the Junior FIRST LEGO League (Jr. FLL), in which they build a challenge-related LEGO model and poster using real-world math and science skills.

Middle schoolers, ages 9 to 14 and grades 4 to 8, compete in the tournament-style FIRST LEGO League (FLL), building and programming autonomous LEGO robots that complete a series of tasks.

FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) is designed for students grades 7 to 12 and centers around a head-to-head, sports model competition. Teams of up to 10 design, build and program TETRIX robots that compete on a 12’ by 12’ arena, and receive awards for not only the competition but community outreach, design and other accomplishments.

Ninth to 12th graders can also participate in the FIRST Robotics Competition, dubbed a “varsity sport for the mind” by organization, which allows teams of 25 students or more to raise funds, brand their team, and build and program a robot while working alongside professional engineers—with the potential of qualifying for college scholarships.

2014 Alamo FTC Championship at Rackspace. Photo by Miriam Sitz.
2014 Alamo FTC Championship at Rackspace. Photo by Miriam Sitz.

Randomist Luke Vilagi loves math, science and engineering, but encouraged even those unsure of their interest levels or proficiency in the subjects to reconsider. “It isn’t necessarily really hard to build a robot—ours isn’t really that complex,” he said.

“I think that this competition is just something that everyone should do, whether you like robotics or not,” Vilagi concluded, “because it’s really, really fun.”

Almost all of the Randomists at the 2014 Alamo FTC Championship at Rackspace: Nia Clements, Madelyne Wilson, Luke Vilagi, Max Ulmer, and Evan Meade (not pictured). Photo by Miriam Sitz.
Almost all of The Randomists at the 2014 Alamo FTC Championship at Rackspace: Nia Clements, Madelyne Wilson, Luke Vilagi, Max Ulmer and Evan Meade (not pictured).
Photo by Miriam Sitz.

Miriam Sitz is a freelance writer in San Antonio. A graduate of Trinity University, she blogs on Follow her on Twitter at @miriamsitz and click here for more stories from Miriam Sitz on the Rivard Report.

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Miriam Sitz

Miriam Sitz writes about urbanism, architecture, design, and more. Follow her on Twitter at @MiriamSitz