How FIRST Works

Robots take to the playing field. See more robot pictures.
Image courtesy FIRST Robotics

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.

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.


FIRST Basics

Machines clash at the FIRST Robotics Competition.
Image courtesy FIRST Robotics

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.


Forming a Team

FIRST brings like-minded young people together.
Image courtesy FIRST Robotics

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.


The Kit of Parts

It takes a lot of work turn a kit of parts into a robot.
Image courtesy FIRST Robotics

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.


FIRST Lego League

Lego-based robotics take the field!
Image courtesy FIRST Robotics

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!


FIRST Robot Parade

FIRST team members prepare for action.
Image courtesy FIRST Robotics

Sure, the chance to participate in FIRST can steer students down a promising new career path, earn them scholarship money and help them to develop priceless engineering, programming and teamwork skills. But it also gives bright young students a chance to let their geek flag fly with pride, as becomes most evident at the annual FIRST Robotics Championship.

At this massive event, teams from around the world don't just come to compete, they come to flaunt their love of science, sci-fi and all manner of silliness. If you're, say, Team 3128 The Aluminum Narwhals out of San Diego, Calif., then this means parading around in capes and unicorn helmets.


Youths and adults alike join in this celebration of nerdom and even kick off festivities with a robot parade. Live marching bands usher the prized bots through the competition grounds and brightly colored mascots follow in their wake. Wizards, aliens and cartoon characters accompany the teams as family members and volunteers cheer from the stands.

It all ties into Dean Kamen's original vision: For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. The massive, international organization aims not only to give young people the tools they need to be successful but also the courage to be themselves in a world that can seem far more focused on building up future star quarterbacks than future roboticists, engineers and ground-breaking scientists.

Explore the links on the next page to learn even more about robots.


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More Great Links

  • FIRST Lego League. 2011. (March 7, 2011)
  • FIRST Robotics. 2011. (March 7, 2011)