Students prep for FIRST Competition in Detroit

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — Michel Stapula and his team of five students from Trenton fine-tuned their robot Wednesday during the first day of a worldwide robotics gathering in Detroit.

Stapula said they’ve worked on “Meg,” short for megabyte, for five years, hoping it will manipulate cubes from any position and transport them securely during the FIRST Championship competition at Cobo Center.

“While most robots here are focused on scaling (climbing,) our strength is perfecting the volt and switch,” said Stapula, 17, referring to pivoting the cubes. “We are honored and feel like we’ve won the lottery to be here. I feel confident she’ll make it far.”

Members of the teams Avengers Tech, left, and Kraken Pinion practice with their robots working together on practice day at the FIRST Robotics Competition Wednesday at Cobo Center.

More than 15,000 students on 700 teams from 37 countries are fighting for bragging rights for the best robot and inventions in competitions through Saturday. A lucky few could even be scouted by industry professionals who are interested in the design.

“We’re a friendly version of TV’s Battle Bots,” said Donald Bossi, president of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). “We are a competition, but it’s not that head-to-head-I-need-to-beat-you type of thing.”

Competitions are divided into groups ranging from ages 6-18. High-schoolers are competing in robotics, middle-schoolers compete in technology challenges and all compete in Lego-building leagues. Teams will compete five times a day Thursday and Friday to qualify for the final competition Saturday at Ford Field.

Bleachers and tents filled Cobo Center’s showrooms, and students have decked out their tents with their country’s flag, team names and decorations.

Teams have to qualify to attend the competition. Maine has five teams; Michigan has nearly 150 teams.

“We chose Detroit about five years ago and followed the progress of the come-back city because of its historic legacy in the industry, Bossi said. “Detroit’s about manufacturing and making, and our kids are makers. It was a natural fit. There’s also such a concentration of the teams from Michigan, Ontario and northeastern Midwest and thought it would be easy for them to get to.”

While most of the teams spent the first day setting up, the competition held a practice Tech Challenge, where teams watched with their robots pick up and move 4 x 6 cubes.

“How excited and frustrated they’re getting is hilarious to watch,” said Sandy Chang, a parent volunteer from Austria. “This place will be packed tomorrow. ... You watch these kids and have faith in the future.”

Besides building robots, competitors in the Lego Leagues were tasked in January with creating an invention that would help solve a worldwide water crisis. More than 34 countries had teams showcasing their inventions. Bossi said none of the 3,600 potential solutions are identical.

Julien Breault Kirouac of Québec, Canada, and his team of five students all wearing T-shirts with their robot model on them, invented a gadget that wraps around pipes to detect leaks.

“Where we’re from, it can become extremely cold and the pipes easily break,” said Julien, 11. “This would wrap and easily notify the home (owner) when it has a leak, preventing a flooding and wasting water. It only took about an hour to make.”

Another team of 10 from Warroad, Minnesota, invented a backpack made of bamboo that makes it easier for kids in Third World countries to transport water a long distance.

“For those that don’t have water accessible to them, we want to increase the (amount of water) they can carry while making it easier for the kids so they don’t get too tired,” said Jack Booth, 13. “Our prototypes are being tested now in Ethiopia and it’s my birthday tomorrow ... this is the coolest way to spend it.”

Bossi said the competition is growing. The FIRST Scholarship Program has generated more than $80 million for college scholarships..

Detroit is hosting this year for the first time, and will host in 2019 and 2020, Bossi said. The event is expected to draw more than 40,000 people to Cobo Center and Ford Field and bring in $30 million for the local and state economy. The events are free, and open to the public.

“The teams are all wearing fun costumes and uniforms and have made Cobo their home ... This is going to be a great week,” Bossi said. “It’s purely about bragging rights and they have to earn their way back next year just like everyone else.”

Twitter: @SarahRahal_