All eyes on robots taking over Detroit

Candice Williams
The Detroit News
Robotics teams compete in the FIRST Tech Challenge qualifying rounds at Cobo Center in Detroit on Wednesday.

Detroit — For Sydney Grassmyer, a Novi High School senior, the year started out with designing, building and competing with a robot during high-pressure team matches.

She wouldn’t have it any other way.

“During the matches, it’s a lot of fun for me,” she said. “It’s kind of exhilarating. Like playing a sport for me. During the match, you go into the strategy, which is most optimal. When you’re competing, it doesn’t always go as planned, so you have to adjust on the fly. I think it’s really intense, but it’s so much fun for me.”

Grassmyer is among the more than 15,000 students from 25 states and 37 countries competing with their custom-built robots this week in the international robotics competition, FIRST Championship. The event runs from Wednesday through Saturday at Cobo Center and Ford Field. 

This is the second year in Detroit for the FIRST Championship, which stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.” The event is expected to draw about 40,000 participants and spectators. 

There are several 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.

This year, the Novi Community School District will be represented in three levels of competition. As the FIRST Robotics team, Grassmyer and her team, named Frog Force, were given six weeks starting in January to build the robot before competing to qualify for the FIRST Championship. The challenge this year was to program their robot move hatch panels and cargo to designated spots.

Early Wednesday, teams prepared their robots and had them inspected before participating in matches.

PowerStackers, a community-based team from Ohio, are competing in the FIRST Tech Challenge. It was tasked with building a robot that can collect and sort 75 cubes and balls. The team has been working on its robot since September.

“We come up with many different versions and ways we can accomplish it, and then we prototype the different versions and see which ones are better,” said Neev Gupta, 15.

The team is competing with its fifth or sixth version.

“We continuously improve every single part,” said Krishna Suresh, 16.

The FIRST competition gives the students practical experience in the engineering field, said Alexandra Carter and Nathaniel Cordova with BAE Systems, one of the event’s sponsors. The two were part of a group of 10 employees who were answering students' questions during the event’s innovation fair. 

The students asked about the type of work they do and how they could get internships, said Carter, an operations program manager. Among the items they showed the kids were a thermal imaging tool and striker helmet both used by the military.

Students who participate in FIRST are ahead of their peers when they enter engineering programs in college, said Cordova, a hardware engineer. As a FIRST alumnus, Cordova said it gave him an advantage when applying for jobs after college.

“It’s a community or engineering society,” said Cordova. “People identify or associate FIRST with folks who are extremely hardworking, have a real-world understanding of solving complex problems and also have a really good business sense. FIRST is not just about the robot. It’s about everything to pretty much make the robot." 

The teamwork associated, the sharing of technical knowledge, but also running a business, fundraising money, reaching out to cooperate sponsorship… how you manage potential conflict on teams. All of that stuff is wrapped into a dense hands-on experience on a FIRST team.”

Grassmyer said she plans to study mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan next year. 

But this week, her goal is helping her team make it to the championship finals at Ford Field on Saturday.

“That’s what we’re all working toward,” she said.

Twitter: @CWilliams_DN