SEASIDE – Seaside High School is set to be the site of mechanical ingenuity this weekend as it hosts robot wranglers from schools across Central California up through the Bay Area for the 2022 FIRST Robotics Competition Monterey Bay Regional.
With 36 incoming teams – including eight from Monterey County – the two-day affair will mark the start of this year’s competitive season for high school robotics, as well as harken the local return of FIRST Robotics to in-person events since it paused face- to-face activities for the pandemic.
“This is huge,” said James Dodson, a Monterey High School senior and longtime member of the campus’ robotics team. “This is something that we have been going through withdrawals from for two years now. So it’s super exciting to finally get to go back. ”
For over 30 years, FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) has challenged teams of high school students, coaches and mentors around the world to build game-playing robots worthy of head-to-head competitions against a field of fellow emerging roboticists. Today, the not-for-profit organization engages hundreds of thousands of youths annually in robotics events located across more than 100 different countries.
In the wake of COVID-19, however, FIRST’s 2020 season came to a halt, followed by a schedule of virtual and moderate programming in 2021. Over the past year, robotics has made a slow return to high school campuses, bringing students back for in -person practice and face-to-face preseason events in the fall – but nothing compares to the nervous excitement of real competition, Dodson explained.
“I’ve only gone to two events, and normally a senior will have gone to six at this point,” he added. “We had no real events in 2020 and no real events in 2021, which is disappointing, but I am so glad we can compete again. … It just wasn’t the same without experiencing the competition live. ”
Though this weekend’s Monterey Bay Regional will take place without spectators – who are instead invited to watch via livestream – gameplay will resume as usual.
Each year, teams are asked to take on a new task under building parameters designed for a given season. This time around, gameplay will be tailored to a transportation theme, where robots earn points by leaving their “tarmacs” to place “cargo” in the form of balls within one of two baskets, or rather upper and lower “hubs.” For the first 15 seconds of the competition, robots will be autonomous, placing the responsibility of movement and scoring solely on machines – and their predetermined code – before student teams take the mechanical reins. Competitors can earn extra points by traversing their “hangar,” which will look like an elevated set of bars robots must climb.
Dodson and the Monterey High Robodores are ready to take on the engineering prowess trial with their robot dubbed Tropical Storm. Since coming back to class in August, the team of 14 students has spent upward of 18 hours a week designing, building, and programming Tropical Storm in after-school hours to render the machine qualified for competition.
Preparation for the 2022 season was a particular learning curve, Dodson explained, as students had to recover expertise and habits lost during their pandemic-induced hiatus from robotics practice.
“When you take a year off, you lose a lot of innate knowledge, and that’s what really makes the top teams perform the way they do,” he said. “We really had to push ourselves hard to recover a lot of that and learn as much as we could during the off-season.”
While teams often use robots from previous years to play around with designs and programming ahead of real-time competition, the Robodores built an entirely new robot last fall to practice and engage in pre-season events. Doing so, Dodson added, took a lot of trial and error – and broken pieces – but ultimately allowed for a better prepared Robodore team and a more streamlined robot design.
Also competing this weekend will be BayBots from Seaside High, a team of nine students all new to robotics this year but nonetheless dedicated to put their best foot forward.
“Our team has been devoted and motivated to build their robot during their free time after school and on Saturdays,” said Michelle Chen, Seaside High teacher and robotics coach, in a press release. “I’m very proud of how much they’ve learned in just a few short months.”
To learn more about the Monterey Bay Regional and see this weekend’s full schedule events, go to http://cafirst.org/frc/montereybay//. Competition will begin at 9 am on Friday and Saturday.