Field trip: 2013 Central Valley FRC Regional

Fremont in the pit

We spent this past weekend in Madera, California at the 2013 Central Valley FRC Regional, a FIRST robotics competition. We went with Firebird Robotics Team 3501 from Fremont High School, who we are mentoring and sponsoring.

840 frisbee in the air

The challenge of this year’s game, entitled Ultimate Ascent was to build a robot that could compete to score points on a team with two other robots by shooting frisbees into goals and climbing a pyramid structure while defending against an opposing alliance of three robots.

James Bond with Oddjob

The Firebirds named their frisbee shooting robot “Oddjob” after the James Bond villain who throws his bowler hat with lethal results. One of the green-shirted safety advisors at the event was coincidentally named James Bond, and he was a good enough sport to allow us to take his picture with Oddjob.

840 decapitation warning

We ran into a robot from team 840 sponsored by our friends at Skallops which had a wonderfully appropriate warning sticker on the frisbee shooter reading “DANGER: DECAPITATION HAZARD.”

Mascot Group Photo

We’re relatively new to the world of FIRST, which can be almost cult-like, with participants identifying themselves by team number like a code word or secret handshake. A smaller number means a team that was established earlier. Over the last 20 or so years, the organization has managed to channel the enthusiasm of teenagers which is normally directed toward athletes and celebrities instead toward engineering, programming, and building. The teams are fiercely spirited, bringing their mascots and supporters to cheer them on at competitions.  It is truly incredible to see this much energy directed towards a science and engineering event.

3495 Mindcraft sign

Robots are awarded more points for goals scored during autonomous play, and the highly competitive field is steered toward collaboration and mutual assistance by the alliance aspect. The teams work hard to make sure that their robot will be an asset to any alliance in the hopes that even if they don’t rank highly enough in qualification rounds to be a team captain themselves, they’ll be chosen by one of the alliance captains and advance to the finals. They actively share tools and materials with the other teams, as any of the other robots could be on their alliance during a given match. Parts request announcements in the pits are filled almost as soon as they are announced, although when we heard “Team #### needs an FTL drive” over the PA, we could only laugh.

One of the more visible ways we were able to share was with our yellow gaffers tape, which team 3495 used to make their engraved sign stand out with their team color. We were the beneficiaries of parts, too, with another team generously sharing a metal shaft when one of ours bent during a match.

mascot working in the pit

The teams are typically student driven, with mentors playing an advisory role, supporting the students as they work through problems of design, mechanics, building, programming, and team dynamics. The students work incredibly hard to design and build the robot during just six weeks allowed as the “build season,” and then during the competitions fine-tune, fix, and improve their machine. Even the mascot works just as hard on the robot as everyone else.

3501, 3970, 2643

Through a combination of determination, hard work and luck, our team came out of the qualifying rounds with the top ranking, and then made it all the way to the final game of the elimination rounds, with their ally teams 3970 and 2643. However, our friends from team 840, along with allies 295 and 1678 bested us to win the finals, 2 matches to 1, earning a spot at the championships.

Besides strict competition, there are additional awards and honors are given at these events to recognize technical ingenuity, good design and spirit. Our team received the Judges award, which was summed up rather accurately by one team member as being the award for “general awesomeness.” Congratulations to all of the participating teams, every one of which pulled off building a robot that could play an incredibly challenging game! Our team is headed next to the Silicon Valley Regional event April 4-6, but there are events every week all over the world leading up to the championships April 24-27 in St. Louis. All events are free and open to the public, so get out and cheer on your local robots!

If you have a chance, find a way to mentor, sponsor, or otherwise volunteer to help out your local robot team or competition.  FIRST, and its several associated programs directed at younger students, are some of the best ways that we have to inspire youngsters to pursue careers in science and engineering.  And that’s something that benefits us all.

ComBots Cup VII

This weekend, Saturday and Sunday, October 20-21, 2-7 pm is ComBots Cup VII at the San Mateo Fairgrounds. ComBots is the heavyweight championship for combat robotics and is one of the loudest, most entertaining robotics competitions there is.

Teams from all over the US, Canada and Brazil will be coming to California to fight for The ComBots Cup – the annual international robot combat championship now in its seventh year. The ComBots Cup is to fighting robots what the World Series is to baseball. The two-day event features robots weighing up to 220 pounds fighting to be crowned the world heavyweight champion.

To get a taste of it, check out the video above, which is one in a series from earlier events. You can get your tickets online now. We’ll hope to see you there!

Field Trip: Bell Labs Technology Showcase

Bell Labs

Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey is one of the sites that should be on every geek pilgrimage itinerary.

Bell Labs 004

Their Technology Showcase is a enshrined in a small exhibit area off of the main lobby. In the center of the exhibit, on a pedestal of its very own, is the first transistor. It looks like a very small piece of mixed media abstract sculpture, with geometric forms and wires bent in wonderful angles. If that were the only thing to see, it would still be worth the visit.

Bell Labs 003

Nearby, the first MOSFET sits in an impressive array of other firsts, including an early CCD and a micro-mirror array.

Telstar at Bell Labs

Telstar, the world’s first active communications satellite hangs overhead. This one is a flight backup unit that was never used.

Glass for fiberoptics

These fiberoptic preforms were placed under a polarizer so that the optical qualities of the cores would be more apparent to visitors.

There are many more beautiful objects, as well as interactive wall for exploring many world-changing developments that happened at and through Bell Labs.

Huge thanks go to Drew Fustini of Pumping Station: One for organizing our post-Maker Faire pilgrimage via twitter and driving us all up to New Jersey.

Open Hardware Summit and Maker Faire New York

Open Hardware Summit Logo

We’re very excited to be heading to New York for the sold-out Open Hardware Summit next week. There is another fantastic lineup of speakers this year, and it will be good to have the opportunity to catch up with the community after an eventful year for open source hardware.

See me at Maker Faire!After that, we’ll be going to Maker Faire New York, where you can find us demoing our kits in the Maker Shed.

We’ll be on the Make Demo Stage with the Egg-Bot on Saturday at 2:30 and Sunday at 3:00.

We hope to see you there!

Shuttle Endeavour Bay Area Fly-By

STS-126 Endeavour atop carrier aircraft

The Space Shuttle Endeavour will be passing through the Bay Area on Friday morning, September 21, and the NASA Ames Research Center has invited the public to come watch.

The shuttle is on its way to its new home at the California Science Center in Los Angeles, where it will be on display starting in October. It is passing over Mountain View on the way as a tribute to the work that was done there on the shuttle systems, including wind tunnel testing and thermal protection systems design and testing. NASA staff will be manning booths to share information about their contributions to the space shuttle program.

Event details are available on the NASA Ames website. All of the available parking passes have already been given out, so taking public transportation is encouraged. Hearing protection is recommended, as the 747 will be flying at 1,500 feet above the viewing area. We’ll hope to see you (and the space shuttle) there!

Makerspace Launch

The Makerspace program is a joint effort by O’Reilly’s Make division and Otherlab to put dedicated space and tools for hands-on making into high schools. They describe their aims on their about page:

By creating makerspaces in an educational context, students can have access to tools and equipment that they might not have otherwise; they can collaborate on projects that are driven by their own interests, and by doing so, develop the capacity and confidence to innovate. We see making as a gateway to deeper engagement in science and engineering but also art and design.

On Monday, September 10, we’ll be attending the Makerspace launch event at the College of San Mateo. We’ll be demoing a few kits and are excited to have the opportunity to meet educators interested in bringing making into the classroom. If you’ll be attending, please stop by our table and say hi!

Nerdy Derby at New York Maker Faire

Our friends over at ITP are putting on a brand new event at Maker Faire NY called Nerdy Derby. It’s like Pinewood Derby racing, but without any pesky rules*. They’ve listed track specs on their site, so check ‘em out and bring your own car to race, or build one on-site at their workshop. They’ll be giving out prizes in several categories, including “The Underdog,” “The Tricked Out,” “The Delicious” (for edible entries), “The Not-So-Pretty” and “The King of the Hill.” Watch their introductory video embedded above or click over to see it on Vimeo. We’re looking forward to checking out these races! We might even have to enter a car of our own…

*The Nerdy Derby site states: “While there are technically no rules for the competition, we ask that participants exercise common sense when it comes to safety.” Gotta love a common sense approach!

Maker Faire is (almost) here!

Digi-Comp II - 02

The 2012 Bay Area Maker Faire will take place May 19 and 20— just 9 days away — in San Mateo, California.
This is the big Maker Faire, and the best. If you’ve never been to Maker Faire, or if you’ve only been to one of the little ones, it’s an experience not to be missed.

Today (Wednesday, May 9) is the last day to buy advance discount tickets for Maker Faire. If you don’t have your tickets yet, this is a great time to get them.

This year we will again be bringing the Giant Digi-Comp II— our supersized binary digital mechanical computer —to Maker Faire. You can read all about the Giant Digi-Comp II here and see a video demonstration of it here. We will also be doing an Egg-Bot demonstration in the Maker Shed.

Finally, we’ll also be participating in Maker Faire Education Day (Thursday, May 17, for K-12 students).

We hope to see you there!


Field Trips: Parque de Las Iguanas

Iguanas 1

Guayaquil (often pronounced as “Gwy-a-keel”) is the largest city in Ecuador. It’s a sprawling metropolis of some 4 million people, located just south of the equator and just inland from the pacific ocean.

In downtown Guayaquil, next to a little cathedral, an unassuming city park block features trees and benches, grassy areas behind knee-high fences, coblestone walkways, and gaggles of kids playing with their families. And also, green iguanas. Hundreds of green iguanas.

Iguanas 19

While formally known as Parque Seminario (Seminary Park– again, it’s next to the little cathedral), the park is better known to the locals as Parque de Las Iguanas, or Iguana Park, and the resident population of iguanas is as people-friendly as they come. The iguanas are not kept behind fences or cages; they roam freely and seem to live in the park entirely by choice. (Of course iguanas are native to the region, and the surrounding city streets are a lot less critter-friendly than the park.) Continue reading