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Two AMD-Sponsored Robotics Teams Seek Titles in FIRST® Championship

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Last April, “Up a Creek Robotics” (Team 1619) from Longmont, Colo., took home the first-place prize at the annual FIRST® Championship in Houston, Texas. The team, made up of more than 80 local high-school-aged students from the St. Vrain School District, is vying for a repeat performance this year.



"It was exciting to win the championship this past year," said Derek Curd, a mentor of the AMD-sponsored team. "It takes years of practice to get teams to compete at that level, and a lot of things have to go your way. Our goal this year is to try to get back there.”

As part of winning the championship last year, Team 1619 earned a free pass to the 2023 FIRST Championship, which will take place, April 19-22 in Houston, Texas. “We will definitely be going to Houston, but we wanted to get there on our own merits this year,” Curd said. “We just came back from Oklahoma and won that regional event, so we feel we've earned the right to go back as champs."

Collin Fultz, senior director for the FIRST Robotics Competition said this season’s robot-building theme is related to energy. The name of the game is "CHARGED UPSM" and the goal is to show how robots are bringing energy into their communities. The energy is represented by two different game pieces: a 12-inch tall sports cone and a nine-inch wide inflatable cube. Teams have to get the objects from a human player and bring them to the other side of field to earn points. There are different scoring locations for each piece, and scoring is based on how challenging it is to reach the scoring location.

"This is the first competition in a few years that has involved an 'arm' game. We're excited to challenge teams with something they haven't had to do in a while," Fultz said. "Also, the distinct game pieces will be a challenge for teams to figure out. Hopefully this will result in a wide range of robot designs this year."

No matter the task, Curd said Team 1619 will be ready. In addition to participating in normal FIRST events, the team also participates in offseason events hosted by other local teams. "Winning involves a lot of preparation and a dose of good luck," he said. “We’re looking forward to the challenge.”


Another AMD-backed team fighting for the championship trophy this year is Team Rolling Thunder (#1511), based at Penfield High School near Rochester, NY. Since the team was launched in 2004, it has embraced all facets of the FIRST program, including a focus on community impact.



"This past year, we've done 95 community events-- both state and local-level advocacy events that give students access to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) learning," said Penfield senior and team captain Nick Vessa.

The team has volunteered with Big Brothers Big Sisters, Children Awaiting Parents, and others to give underprivileged students a chance to see that there is an opportunity in FIRST to have a future in STEM. 

"We do lot of outreach for kids that wouldn't otherwise have an opportunity to get involved in robotics," said the team's mechanical design lead, Kadence Ostheller. "We all grew up in Penfield, but there are underserved communities in the greater Rochester area with students that don't have the same opportunities that we do."

Team 1511 has about 36 participating students and 20 community mentors. Some mentors are teachers, but others are professionals from industry. Over the years, Team 1511 has qualified to attend the FIRST Championship event in 16 of its 19 years and has earned several Impact awards for community outreach, including this year's Impact Award win at the Finger Lakes regional. The team also won an Impact award and finished in the top six at the championship last year.

This year, Team 1511 has built a robot with a two-foot by three-foot frame, weighing 150 pounds. "One of the unique things about our robot this year is our ball screw lift," Vessa said. "We use two 16mm ball screws on either side of a telescoping arm that can grab and lift objects. The arm can go from floor to fully raised in a half second."

The telescoping arm, which can stretch up to 44 inches, is made of aluminum, square tubes that slide smoothly with hand-machined bearing blocks, and there are 20 bearing blocks per arm. The arm features a gripping mechanism with two pistons -- one at the top and one at the bottom -- that move in different directions, and a third component that squeezes. The design was inspired by one on the team's 2016 robot but is more compact and lighter in weight.

Every team in the FIRST Robotics Competition program uses the RoboRIO controller from National Instruments to build their robots, which is driven by an AMD Zynq™ adaptive SoC. In addition, AMD has sponsored a handful of teams over the years. "This money allows us to purchase parts, pay for travel costs, and up our game in terms of how competitive we are,” Vessa said. “We only get six weeks to build a robot, so having funds to source parts quickly is so crucial to our performance."

Ostheller said each competition is a learning experience. "After the last competition, we had a team meeting where we discussed everything that happened at the event and made a change log. We are going through it now and seeing how we can make improvements to do even better at the next competition."

Marissa Zwick, Team 1511's advocacy coordinator, has been on the drive team this season, which is responsible for driving the team's robot. "We've had some mishaps where the robot didn't function correctly, but our pit crew quickly solved the problems. It has been fun working with other teams to strategize and see how we can maximize the number of points that we earn."

"Being able to work with teams from around the world is awesome," Zwick added. "Even though we speak different languages, we all speak 'robot.’"

Fultz said there are 3,350 teams across 30 countries participating in this year's challenge, 600 of which will compete in Houston. “One big change this year is in how we run our elimination tournament," he said. "Even if you lose the first match you can still battle back through the lower brackets and compete for a chance to win."

There are also a few tweaks to the gameplay this year. "One of the things we have built into this year’s game are vision targets," Fultz said. "They look like QR codes around the field. Teams can use these vision targets to automate the scoring. Almost all industrial automation uses this type of vision coprocessing to help robots locate themselves in their surroundings, so this skill is very applicable to industry."

"I honestly feel this year's robot is the most-competitive robot we've had since I was a freshman," Vessa said. “I’m really looking forward to seeing what we can do this year.”