Thirty-seven robots are primed and ready to roll this week for the FIRST Robotics Arizona Regional Competition at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix.
Teams from 17 Arizona high schools and 20 from other states will be competing in the national program, which is designed to encourage teens to pursue careers in science and technology.
Chandler-based Microchip Technology is the organizing sponsor of the Arizona regional, and the semiconductor company also is sponsoring teams from Hamilton and Seton high schools in Chandler. The General Motors Desert Proving Ground in Mesa is sponsoring a robotic team from Highland High School in Gilbert.
Other corporate sponsors include Intel Corp., ON Semiconductor, Avnet, Three-Five Systems, Wells Fargo, Bank One and the Arizona Diamondbacks.
With the help of corporate mentors, each high school attempts to produce a remote-controlled robot that will perform an assigned task better than its rivals. Regional winners will advance to the national finals in April in Houston.
This year, the robots will have to push plastic containers into a scoring zone and stack them up as high as possible. Team scores are based on the number of containers pushed into the scoring zone and the number that is stacked. Four robots will be on the playing surface at the same time, arranged in two teams. The robots can both try to perform the assigned task and prevent the other team’s robots from scoring, creating the potential for plenty of chaos.
Extra points are earned for having the robot in the right position at the end of each 2-minute game.
Students design and build their robots as well as plan strategy for how they will play, said Carol Popovich, a Microchip Technology employee who is co-chairwoman of the regional planning committee. Many teams plan their strategy first, then design their robots around that, she said.
Each school has six weeks to design, build, test and ship its machine.
The competition encourages teams to come up with innovative designs, Popovich said. As examples, one team has produced a device that can grab the lip of the plastic box and lift it up. Another has designed a robot that has wings that can move up and down so that another robot can roll over the top of it.
Teams can participate in more than one regional if they pay the required entry fees. There are 24 regional competitions around the country from which to choose.
"They put so much time and effort into this that it’s fun for them to compete in other regionals," Popovich said. "They might make modifications to their robot because of the things they learn."
This is the first year that a FIRST Robotics Regional Competition has been held in Arizona. Microchip Technology has been deeply involved with the program for several years, sponsoring high school teams and donating microcontrollers that go into the robotcontrol systems.
Microchip’s involvement stems from the friendship between chairman Steve Sanghi and Dean Kamen, an inventor and entrepreneur who founded the national FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) organization.
Kamen is the developer of the Segway human transporter, a two-wheel personal vehicle that uses Microchip components.
When Kamen told Sanghi he wanted a regional championship in Arizona, Sanghi raised more than $215,000 to stage the event, Popovich said. Microchip sees the program as an investment in its own future, she said.
"These are our future customers and engineers," she said of the high school participants. "It shows there can be excitement in engineering, science and math."
Charlie Hicks, a Microchip engineer who has mentored the Hamilton High School team for three years, said the program helps teenagers learn how to work together in sometimes tense, real-world situations. He added the experience will help them no matter what careers they enter.
"They have to learn about teamwork, schedules, deadlines, budgets and how to deal with others," he said. "You have to keep working no matter what happens."
The FIRST competition is open to the public at no charge. Practice sessions will be held on Thursday and the competition will be held beginning at 9 a.m. on Friday and Saturday.