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Nicole Lyle, a senior at Manchester High School West, measures a pyramid during the annual FIRST competition kickoff, held at Southern New Hampshire University in Hooksett on Saturday, Jan. 5. (Thomas Roy/Union Leader Photo)

FIRST kicks off

Teams from Manchester’s West and Central high schools attended the kickoff of the 2013 FIRST Robotics competition on Saturday, Jan. 5, and immediately began brainstorming to meet this year’s daunting engineering challenges.

“It’s kind of like being 5 years old on the night before Christmas, but better,” said Jen Hosker, a West team mentor, in anticipation of the kickoff.

This year’s game

This year’s challenge, the “Ultimate Ascent,” is played by two competing alliances of three teams on a 27-foot-by-54-foot field.

“Each alliance consists of three robots,” said Central adviser Nancy Kelso.

The teams’ objective is to get Frisbee-like flying discs thrown into goals at the end of the field. The goals have reflective vision targets for the robots to identify their targets. Each match begins with a 15-second autonomous period, when the robots may score by getting discs into the goal using pre-programmed instructions.

Thereafter, human drivers command the robots to score as quickly as possible. Discs can be thrown or placed into the goals by the human-driven robots.

Near the end of the match, human players can also throw discs directly into the goals to score. In the final seconds, robots can then climb a middle pyramid for extra points, and the higher they climb, the more points they score, with additional points for getting to the summit.

“The students have some interesting ways of making a robot throw Frisbees. We will see how the prototypes come out,” said Kelso, contemplating whether the robots will actually throw the discs or find a way to simply place them in the goals.

“We will just have to wait and see what they design!” she said. “We are very lucky this year because we have a number of mentors and alumni working with the team.”

West and Central prepare

West’s PowerKnights attended via NASA TV broadcast at Dyn, Inc., in Manchester, after which they broke for lunch, “read the rules to the new game,” and then started brainstorming the next day, said adviser Isaac Onigman.

“We’ll be working hard to come up with a great design the next few weeks,” he said, “and then we’ll be starting manufacturing.”

Central’s CHAOS team attended the FIRST kickoff event at Southern New Hampshire University, where they heard from Gov. Maggie Hassan, FIRST founder Dean Kamen and Woodie Flowers of MIT.

The CHAOS team watched videos about the upcoming season and challenge for this year.

“Then off to see an actual field set-up,” said Kelso, after which “CHAOS members went home, had lunch and met at Central for the afternoon to discuss the challenge and how the team will work this build season,” she said.


In addition to setting forth the challenges, the videos shown at the kickoff set the stage for students to understand FIRST’s origins and priorities.

Kamen, for example, talked of his origins in engineering when he made “little boxes with little amplifiers” that he sold to local bands and musicians for their light shows, learning from his mentor – his father – who told him to “find something you love to do and do it really well. If you do it in a better way than anyone else, the world will pay you for it,” he said in his video broadcast.

His older brother, another mentor and pediatric oncologist, gave Kamen the inspiration to build special pumps for his brother’s patients, which he later modified to deliver insulin to a much wider population.

Of late, Kamen has been working on an engineering solution to the issue of providing clean, drinkable water, he said, since “access to clean water is the Number One health problem in the world – it kills more than two million people a year – mostly kids under 5 years old.”

After 15 years of research and work, Kamen and his team have developed a system so that “next year we can be producing and delivering a billion liters of water – clean, safe water,” he said.

Setting the tone

Another video regarding “gracious professionalism” emphasized another aspect of FIRST: teamwork.

“Gracious professionals are good, smart people doing good, smart things,” said Flowers in the video. You’ve got to put “we” ahead of “me,” he said. “With the privilege of knowing comes the responsibility of integrity.”

The BAE Systems/Granite State Regional competitions will be held this year at the Verizon Wireless Arena from Feb. 28 to March 2.

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