Robot invasion coming to Detroit ... again

Candice Williams
The Detroit News
Casey O'Connor and Erik Huang from Canada work on a cargo ship in one of the playing fields Tuesday at Cobo Center in Detroit.

Detroit — The robots are coming. So are their creators. And their creators' parents.

More than 15,000 students and their custom-built robots are traveling to downtown Detroit this week for a fast-paced, international robotics competition, FIRST Championship.

The event, which runs from Wednesday through Saturday at Cobo Center and Ford Field, involves timed matches and skill as students adjust their robots to complete assigned tasks.

This is the second year for the FIRST Championship in Detroit. It turned out to be a great choice, said Don Bossi, president of FIRST, which stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.”

“Because of the cultural alignment of FIRST and Detroit, the making, building culture,” Bossi said. “... Michigan has an outstanding number of FIRST games in the state. So we’re very much part of the culture of Michigan in terms of that DNA for being makers and builders. Also having that strong presence in schools in Michigan.”

Volunteers Yosi Karl from Israel and Andrea Tanner from the United Kingdom set up a robotic playing area at Cobo Center in Detroit on Tuesday.

The competition will also return in 2020. Organizers estimate that it will generate $30 million annually for the state’s economy as the free event draws about 35,000 participants and spectators each year.

"When you walk into an arena and there are 40,000 other people who are excited about what you're interested in passionate about, you start to realize that you're part of a community and part of a movement," Bossi said. 

The competition in Detroit is the first of two FIRST Championship held this month. Last week, teams competed in Houston. The event was created by Dean Kamen, inventor of the first drug-infusion pump and the Segway. He started the FIRST Robotics program in 1989.

Students from 25 states and 37 countries were gearing up Tuesday for the competition, which begins with qualifying competitions on Wednesday afternoon. 

There are three levels of competition: the FIRST LEGO League Jr. World Festival Expo for ages 6-10, the FIRST LEGO League World Festival for ages 9-16, the FIRST Tech Challenge World Championship for ages 12-18 and the FIRST Robotics Competition Championship for ages 14-18. There is also one student exhibition for students ages 6-18.

Represented countries include Austria, Belgium, Chile, Indonesia, Ireland and South Africa. 

Among those traveling to Detroit were the PowerStackers team from Ohio. 

This is the team’s second time in Detroit for the competition. Bill Buckey, mentor for the PowerStackers, said last year the team was scared to compete in such a high-profile competition. Also, Detroit seemed like such a big city, he said. 

“It was wonderful…” Buckey said of the event. “There were lots of activities, lots of colleges handing out scholarships and recruiting. On the side, a lot of kids got to go to the Henry Ford, the Piquette Ford plant and tour the waterfront and see stuff they’d never seen before.”

The team was expected to be in the pit area early Wednesday morning.

"This is exciting," he said. “They’re not going to miss a moment of it."

Twitter: @CWilliams_DN