Category Archives: Robotics

MA Regional First Championships

During my trip to Boston last week for the National Science Teacher’s Association conference (more on that later) I totally lucked out in also catching the FIRST Robotics League Northeastern Regional Championships. If you haven’t been to one, you simply must go. As remarkable as this sounds, there is almost certainly one in your area. It was AWESOME. There were more than 7,000 people in attendance in the Agganis Arena at Boston University to see the real deal, professionally produced and run, very well-organized, with pro announcers, cameramen and lighting.

Over forty teams of high school students were running robots that they built from nothing inside of 6 weeks to accomplish a VERY complicated challenge. They were so FANTASTIC that I am going to run out of superlatives before getting to the end of this post. The very idea that this organization has grown since 1992 to reach more than 13,000 schools across the US, and that there are 41 REGIONAL competitions before the upcoming late April finals in Atlanta is just incredible. Better yet, FIRST has clearly been very successful in perpetuating and growing a model that is self-sustaining, with many teams having competed for several years, with former FIRST team members returning to mentor their old team or going on to start new ones.

I managed to arrive just in time to watch the contest start up for the final day with a performance by the Blue Man Group, followed by the grand entrance of Woodie Flowers, the legendary MIT professor who founded FIRST, and before that was the originator of the famous MIT 2.70 and 6.270 robotics contests. Check out how these people LOVE him as he enters the arena using an interesting MIT spin-out technology called the Atlas Ascender (a self-contained box that allows rapid ascent as well descent.)

Woodie Rappelling – Boston Regional 2008.

The day began with the quarter-finals matches and I stayed through the final. The designs were quite varied, with the older more experienced teams (you could tell from the low team numbers below 100 that were granted years ago) clearly demonstrating that years of experience really helps in refining robust approaches to complicated problems. That said, even the rookie teams showed great creativity and incredible dedication and teamwork. Check out these photos of several of the robots.

The matches were real nail-biters with cheering and chants that rivaled any football game I had ever attended (except maybe the Chelsea Tottenham match in London). To see this leve of excitement and adulation usually reserved for sports and entertainment celebrities unleashed on students for engineering and innovation just warmed my heart. Something has been made right in the world.

Everyone I spoke with loved the experience and couldn’t even imagine failing to participate next year. And as Steve Wozniak, one of the FIRST luminaries said, “There are lots of prizes and awards, and only one of them is for winning.” Their hearts and minds are certainly in the right place.

Find out about your local FIRST events and sign up however you can, as a participant. mentor, coach, parent, whatever. You won’t regret it.

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Sneaking Out of the House to Build Robots

My favorite story from the whole FIRST Northeastern Regional competition was revealed in the delivery of the “Woodie Flowers” award. Woodie, you see, is the MIT professor who founded FIRST with Dean Kamen of Segway fame, after starting the legendary 2.70 and later 6.270 robotics contests at MIT. In many ways, Woodie was responsible for my attendance at MIT, just as he has now been responsible for inspiring tens of thousands of aspiring technologists across the US through FIRST.

So in thanks and recognition, the Woodie Flowers Award is granted to the team mentor at each regional and final First contest that best exemplifies Woodie’s spirit of contribution, teamwork, and inspiration.

Woodie Flowers and Elizabeth Carruthers

This year’s recipient, Elizabeth Carruthers from the Columbus School for Girls, had a great story. As a high school student, her parents weren’t all that supportive of the time and energy that FIRST demanded, so she had to sneak out of the house to work on her team’s FIRST robot.

She was so committed to the program and her teammates, that when her parents caught her sneaking out, she told them that she was just going to “parties with her friends,” which turned out to be okay with them. You see, they wanted her to be socially well-adjusted, and feared seeing their daughter turned into a nerd.

Given that she has now gone on to a technical undergraduate program, and returned to mentor her old high school’s FIRST team (an all-girl’s team, at that) into the regional finals, (a remarkable accomplishment that takes MANY more skills in communication and leadership and interpersonal relationships than just the technical ones) I’d say she’s VERY well adjusted!

Congrats, Elizabeth. Our nation need more inspirations like you.

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Dean Kamen’s Prosthetic "Luke" Arm

What a technical home run. If you need any more motivation to engage in cool robotics projects, just check out the reaction when the test subject figures out he can feed himself for the first time in 26 years. That’s social impact. From the IEEE Spectrum site.

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i-Limb Bionic Hand Video

Just in time for NBC’s new series reprise of “The Bionic Woman,” reality has caught up with science fiction. Watch this incredible video of the first commercial bionic hand which operates entirely using nerve impulses.

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Robocup 2007 in Atlanta

All you Atlanta natives have no excuse for missing the 2007 Robocup competition, currently ongoing (July 1st-10th) at Georgia Tech. The official competition just began yesterday (Tuesday, July 3rd), but the event continues through finals on July 10th.

It’s so cool I don’t think I need to even say anything more about it other than check out these images and videos. And get over to GaTech and check it out!


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FIRST Lego League Registration is Open!

Have all of you student and teacher readers out there already registered for the FIRST Lego Robotics League? Well, what are you waiting for? Register for the First Lego League Here.

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This awesome robotics contest registration opened May first (and will likely fill up by the end of the summer: 1,715 teams have already signed-up!) so get those applications in!

Here is the tentative schedule for the year:

May 1
Registration Opens

Registration Materials and Robot Sets Begin to Ship

Field Setup Kits Begin to Ship

September 5
International Challenge Release

Team Registration Closes/Last Day to Order Products

October 1-12
Tournament Applications Accepted (If FLL is handling applications)

November- January
Tournament Season

April 2008
World Festival

Registration costs $200 per team, but also be sure to order the Field set-up kit (which should start shipping around August first) when you register, or it will be difficult to practice.

Click on the following links to find:

And don’t forget the opportunities for the younger and older set with the JFLL [Junior First Lego League], and their community web site. Check out these budding scientists!



And, of course, there is the FIRST league proper for the older kids.


Hell, I want to sign-up. Why don’t they have a league for us grownups?! I guess I’ll have to live with being a mentor or something. It appears as if there are plenty of volunteer opportunities in support for frustrated teachers like myself.

<!–Posted by LEGO Education on June 15th, 2007 –> I just love the fact that these tournaments are becoming better attended than the school basketball games! I can only hope now, that FIRST will rise to eclipse football as well. Just imagine a nation of youngsters innovating instead of bashing into each other!
If you can’t tell already, I’m a big fan of this program. I’ve always been of the opinion that this is exactly the sort of open-ended creative challenge that nurtures the seeds of inspiration, and that these sorts of activities should be fostered at an early age. Now there is some data to back up my faith. From a recent Brandeis University study, the impact of the FIRST program is astounding. From the study:

When compared with the comparison group, FIRST students are:

  • More than 3 times as likely to major specifically in engineering.
  • Roughly 10 times as likely to have had an apprenticeship, internship, or co-op job in their freshman year.
  • Significantly more likely to expect to achieve a post graduate degree.
  • More than twice as likely to expect to pursue a career in science and technology.
  • Nearly 4 times as likely to expect to pursue a career specifically in engineering.

Impact chart

How can you turn your back on statistics like those, even if there is a bit of self-selected sample group?

Go forth and Innovate!

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Leonardo, A Social Robot

One of my grad school friends turned MIT professor, Cynthia Breazeal, has teamed up with Stan Winston Studios of animatronic movie robot fame to create an astounding new robot named Leonardo.

Photographs, copyright Sam Ogden

This little artificial creature was not designed to move around or navigate, but rather to interact socially with humans. 61 different motors (32 in the face alone) articulate its limbs, hands, digits, expressive facial features, eyelids, and ears so that it can communicate its artificial feelings.

Photograph, copyright Sam Ogden

The software driving the robot is also interesting, and designed to learn by visual and verbal example, just as humans do. The video available through the preceding link is a little spooky in that regard. You can also check out the technical paper here, C. Breazeal, G. Hoffman, and A. Lockerd (2004). “Teaching and Working with Robots as a Collaboration.”

Be sure to hunt around the main Leonardo web site for more movies foretelling our robotic future.

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FIRST Robotics Contest Book

I just picked up a copy of the book by Dean Kamen and Woodie Flowers chronicling several of the winning designs from the FIRST robotics competition. The innovation emerging from high school students is staggering.

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Weekend Robotics Projects

Don’t miss this week’s Make Magazine blog feature podcast on weekend starter robotics projects with pdf hardcopy support this week. It’s a great source for parts, kits, how-to videos and general tutorial resources. The kits and instructions are PERFECT for first-time electronics hackers and roboticist wanna-be types. The materials costs are modest and the projects can be completed and tested inside a few hours.




The article also includes a few links to some nice sources of parts (particularly the wonderful little pager motors)

and kits for those less inclined to scour the junk bins and create your own, Check out and

The tiny kits follow in the fine tradition set by one of my old MIT acquaintances, Mark Tilden, who’s book entitled “Junkbots, Bugbots & Bots on Wheels” is the canonical must-read source on how to build disassemble all those old Sony Walkmen otherwise gathering dust in the junk drawer and use their component parts to build nifty little artificial critters. You can get Mark’s book here from Amazon.

Create your very own artificial creatures in a weekend? How cool is that?

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BEAM Vibrobots

The online Make magazine portal just published a nice article on how to make your very own BEAM vibrobots. For those of you unfamiliar with the BEAM movement, the basic notion is to wire up simple circuits that connect photo-sensors almost directly to motors, so that by shining a light on the simple robot, it will scurry around either towards, or away from, the light thereby mimicking any number of insects. And then, of course, there is all the fun and art in arranging the components to look as insectile as possible.

 Vibrobot Standard
The Vibrobot takes this notion to a minimalist extreme by eliminating wheels, and reducing the number of motors to one tiny pager motor with an eccentric weight attached. When light shines on the photo-cell, the motor vibrates, and with proper sprung leg designs, the robot will scurry along in fine insect fashion. And without the wheels, the vibrobots are ever more insect like in form as well.

Vibrobot Partcallout

Here’s a page from the no-doubt forthcoming print edition showing the simple circuit used for these nifty little critters…

Img413 1582

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