Team 1507 with 2011 RobotThis next Saturday, January 8th, 2011, will be the Kickoff for the 2011 season of the FIRST Robotics Competition.

In case you’re not familiar with this program, you can learn a lot about it at the official website of FIRST or you can watch the kickoff ceremonies Saturday. I’d urge you to do both, if you’re curious about it.

The program is a High School-aged competitive Robotics program that culminates in robots from all over the world trying to win the events in the Championship held this year for the first time in St. Louis MO.

But winning is just a goal. The real challenge is the whole process for the season. The kickoff both unveils a game the robots must play to compete in, and is the start of a six-week period when the teams are allowed to build their robot. At the end of the six-weeks, it’s hands-off and the robot is sealed for shipping to the competitions starting in march.

Every team is given a basic kit of parts and the same information about the game. They must figure out how to play the game, which is played by an alliance of three robots against another alliance of three robots. You need to cooperate with your alliance-mate, who are from other teams and schools that you may have never met before to prevail over the other alliance. But don’t beat them too badly, they might be you alliance partners in the next match held in round-robin fashion.

The team must analyze the game and determine what they want their robot to be able to do. Every game has too much to do. A common pitfall is trying to do it all and ending up doing it all poorly.

Then they must design a robot that does what they want it to do. Coming up with ideas and solutions, building prototypes, debugging them and getting the final result built all in six weeks is a daunting task. The team works every day they can for the six weeks. Our team works Monday through Saturday. We’d probably work Sundays, if we could get into the school!

This is the 20th Anniversary of FIRST and the program has grown to well over 2000 teams today. Our team, The Warlocks, Team 1507 from Lockport High School, is in it’s seventh year. A really neat page with the history of all the past seasons can be seen here.

To get into the game and see the Kickoff as it happens, the best place is NASA TV, which is carried on DirecTV on channel 289, Dish Network on channel 212, many cables systems (check you listings) and online by NASA TV. If you have your own satellite dish, there is information on getting it directly on the NASA page as well.