Students set to turn Detroit into Robot City

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Motor City will be put into motion Wednesday when thousands of students descend on the city for the world’s largest robotics competition, which is being held at Cobo Center and Ford Field through Saturday.

Event organizers say Detroit was chosen for the FIRST Championship competition in recognition of its status as a hub for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) companies and for its historic reputation as an automotive industry leader and community of innovative thinkers.

“Detroit is the Comeback City, making it a kindred spirit with FIRST kids who learn grit and persistence through our programs,” said Donald Bossi, president of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology).

“For many years, FIRST has had great support from Gov. (Rick) Snyder and many city- and state-based companies and educators. These factors, combined with Michigan’s STEM-centric economy, made Detroit a natural fit.”

To welcome participants, city parks and open spaces around the downtown have free STEM pop-up activities and games.

Here is what you need to know about all the moving parts:

More than 15,000 students in grades K-12 are competing in FIRST Championship. They are coming from 25 states and 45 countries, bringing custom-built robots, competing in timed matches and making adjustments on-the-fly, FIRST officials said.

Detroit is hosting the FIRST world competition for the first time and will continue to host in 2019 and 2020.

The event is expected to attract more than 40,000 people and bring in $30 million to the local and state economy.

The event is free to attend, and viewing areas are open to the public.

Wednesday is a setup day for teams with the first qualifying match from 4 p.m.-5:30 p.m.

There are several levels of competition, including: FIRST Robotics for students ages 14-18, FIRST Tech Challenge for ages 12-18, and FIRST LEGO League for ages 9-16.

The championship is the culmination for student teams who participated in regional competitions held around the world. During their matches, students will put their custom-built robots to the test with the help of mentors and professional engineers, FIRST officials say.

Each level of competition has its own rules. Here is a video explaining the rules of the FIRST Robotics game called Power Up, which is a three-robot-on-three-robot game. The match is played for two minutes and 35 seconds. The first 15 seconds the robot is autonomous, the other two minutes and 15 seconds the robot is driven by students. Players score via moving power cubes.

The final rounds of the FIRST Robotics Competition and FIRST Tech Challenge showdowns are Saturday from 6:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m. at Ford Field.

The FIRST Championship can be watched live, including real-time matches, interviews with special guests, commentary from the FIRST sports desk and more by visiting

Lake Orion robotics coach Jeff Byrne feels like his middle school team already has won by being a part of the global FIRST competition in Detroit.

Byrne, an engineer for General Motors Co. who coaches the 10-member Cyber Dragons from Oakview Middle School, said his team was picked through a lottery to compete at FIRST.

It’s a move done by the FIRST organization to provide more teams access to the championship level, even if they did not take the top prize in previous competitions, Byrne said.

On Tuesday, Byrne and the students were busy tweaking their robot for the event and packing up materials.

“They are doing good. They are excited. The scale of the event is rather large. None of them at this age have seen anything like this before,” Byrne said.

The Cyber Dragons will be competing against 128 teams, including many at the high school level, in their category.

“This is really the payoff for them, to celebrate all of the stuff they have worked on during the season. It’s all STEM-based. They don’t know it, but they have been applying what they have learned in school,” Byrne said.

Officials with DTE Energy Co., an event sponsor, say the competition is key to building the future workforce needed in Michigan’s STEM-fueled economy. The championship encourages students to explore science, technology, engineering and mathematics, essential fields for the energy industry.

Shawn Patterson, vice president of organizational effectiveness and chief learning officer at DTE, said roughly 50 percent of the energy workforce is set to retire in the next decade. The biggest hurdle is training the right talent with the right skills and matching that talent with in-demand employment opportunities, Patterson said.

“This was a natural to bring it to a place like Detroit,” Patterson said. “It’s an area already steeped in STEM-related jobs like ours going through a transformation. This is the kind of talent this area needs to attract. This is a perfect match having FIRST here in Detroit.”