In the packed gymnasium of Denmark High School, over the weekend hundreds of boisterous spectators and participants gathered to see a clash between machine and brainpower, as dozens of cunningly-constructed robots competed against one another at the Georgia FIRST Robotics 2019 Forsyth District event.
Thirty robotics teams from across metro Atlanta and their robots faced off at the event, moving bright orange balls in an intricate playing field, scoring points by completing tasks in the right order, all in an action-packed few minutes that filled the gym with cheers, yells and laughter.
According to Georgia FIRST Robotics spokeswoman Karen Judd, at the beginning of each year the different teams will get the specific details of the competition, and from that point on they have six weeks to build their fully functioning robot, basically from scratch, with the hope that it will work exactly as designed and will stand the test of dozens of rounds at tournaments during the year.
"Some years it’s flinging Frisbees, some years it's shooting basketballs through hoops,” Judd said. “This year, it's actually in honor of the 40th anniversary of the landing on the moon. So when you see the field, you'll see it has space shuttles and cargo bays … basically mimicking some elements that the original engineers would have been using to build the robots and schematics of that launch."
During the competition, robots whizzed back and forth across the sectioned-off playing field in the gym, some carrying balls to load in “shuttles,” others carrying circular plate-like objects that held the balls in the shuttles. Others performed other tasks, like blocking opposing robots or climbing a platform for additional points.
"There’s a lot of different ways teams can approach any given challenge each year,” Judd said. "It's not like battle bots, but it’s absolutely not passive.”
While the theme of the competition and game might change from year to year, the tests and competition themselves are universal.
"It actually starts with the robots themselves. They are building it from a very limited kit of parts and they start off with mechanical designs. We're testing how their robots hold up throughout the competition,” she said.
But Judd said that at a qualifying event like this one, teams aren’t just building a robot and competing against everyone else. Instead, they work in alliance with two other teams that are randomly selected the day of the competition, facing off together against other alliances of teams, which she said adds another layer of difficulty and tests the teams and robots in other ways.
She said that this leaves it up to the different teams to decide how they want to build their robot and what role that robot will eventually fill in an alliance.
"There’s a lot of different ways to play it and there’s plusses and minuses to choosing each of those paths, so it’s part of the strategy part of the game," she said.
Judd said that this event and the work that FIRST Robotics does give students exposure to many different essential engineering concepts and technologies while also connecting students who otherwise never would have met or collaborated together.
“It brings some of the smartest students in the state together and gives them a tribe of like-minded students,” Judd said. "If this is who we're putting our future in, then I think we're in great hands."
On Sunday, Forsyth Central High School’s Team OTTO, along with Ignite Robotics of Suwanee and The WiredCats of Atlanta, were crowned the winners.
After the event, Team OTTO Booster Club President Benjie Aguilar said that he was proud of all the different groups and students of the team and how they came together during the competition.
"As you know, this is a team sport, and there’s just no way any one individual really would be able to accomplish all that the kids have done," Aguilar said. “That’s one thing that the kids have definitely learned, more than just going to school, but being able to work as a team towards a common goal."
Aguilar also praised the county-wide commitment to technology and education that this event showed.
"Overall, the event being at Forsyth County location for the first time, and the fact that we had almost all the schools participate, it’s a telling thing that technology at this level is very high on the schools’ mind,” Aguilar said. “It's a good indicator of how much the schools have embraced technology overall."
Judd said at the event that although they have had a presence in Forsyth County for a long time, they were happy to actually hold the event in Forsyth County this year, considering the system’s energetic and supportive attitude towards STEM and the technology sector.
"We bring these competitions where we know that we're supported and where we know that STEM is supported,” she said.
Of the five Forsyth County Robotics Teams that competed over the weekend, three advanced to the Georgia state championship, which will be held in Carterville on April 3: Team OTTO of Forsyth Central High School, EagleBots of South Forsyth High School and Avenger Robotics of Alliance Academy for Innovation.