A common misperception about robotics competition is the idea robots mutilating other robots with chainsaws for the entertainment of a screaming crowd. For this reason, when I tell someone that I’m on a high school robotics team, I get some strange looks. Even after they realize that their original impression was wrong, it’s often difficult for people to understand what the competition actually is. Often, it is nearly impossible to describe unless a person has attended a F.I.R.S.T. (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics competition.
The competition has been described as the “Super Bowl for geeks.” Simply waiting in line to walk through the doors, the excitement is almost tangible. Large crowds of teenagers wearing team uniforms, ranging from white T-shirts to brightly colored bowling shirts to black jumpsuits, start waves and shout cheers. And that’s before the competition has even begun.
At this year’s regional competition at the Long Beach Arena, the teams made their way to the pits. Much like the pit at a car racing event, the pit is a location where teams can repair their robots between matches. Each team’s pit is a different color and is filled with an assortment of tools.
Team members often collect souvenir pins from other teams and eventually, one’s shirt, bag, hat or jeans are so thoroughly covered in pins that people begin to jingle when they move. In the midst of the matches, when certain music is played, huge crowds of people will start doing the chicken dance or the cha-cha slide. The stands are filled with screaming people, rooting for one team or another.
The exuberance of the observing teams might lead one to believe that it would be a popular practice to hide robot designs in high-security vaults and hire bodyguards for one’s robot in order to prevent sabotage. But there are no saboteurs here. We are all one big (dysfunctional) family. When someone needs help, a rival team usually offers it. That was the attitude of most of the teams at the Los Angeles regional competition this year. The Culver City High School robotics team – team 702 – was in the middle of a match this year when “Pinchy,” our robot, caught fire. Team members who had been watching from the side of the field described the event as “absolutely terrifying.”
After officials used a fire extinguisher to douse the robot, which then stopped spewing white smoke, the team took it back to the pit for repairs. While fixing the robot, most of the other teams came over to see if there was anything that they could do to help.
After much time spent rewiring and fixing the electronics board, cheers erupted from the pit as the judges determined that the robot was fit to compete again. In the time it took to fix the robot, we had only missed one match. A short time later, the robot was renamed “Phoenix” after a unanimous vote by the team.
Later, we won our last two matches of the day. The next day we came to the competition with large posters reading, “the Phoenix rises.” On the posters, we thanked all those who had offered their help during the fire incident. Eventually, we made it to the quarter finals and ultimately finished in fourth place.
Attending a robotics competition is an almost indescribable experience. There is nothing quite like it. The terrifying sight of our robot ablaze was the arguably highlight of this year’s competition. And yet, however terrifying it was, the fire is what really caught the attention of most of the teams. Our ability to come back after such a catastrophic event inspired rival teams. It didn’t seem to matter that we didn’t win or take home awards. Team 702, thanks to “Phoenix,” a.k.a, “Pinchy,” became more than just the class clown of the competition, it became the class clown that can catch fire and get back up for more.