Monday, February 21, 2011


Robotics is over. This past Saturday, Matt and Jacob and their team went to the State FTC (First Technix Challenge) Championships. In FTC, the teams build robots to perform specific challenges with a time period.  (For those of you who know something about it, they use an NXT brain, Robot C programming language, a Samantha unit for communication, and then, of course, the body made from Tetrix, and any other allowed components.)

This was the team’s first year in FTC (though they’d been involved in robot building for a younger age group before). When we arrived at the competition, the other teams came to scope out our robot—trying to figure out if we were serious competition. People weren’t too impressed with our team’s robot—no flashing lights, no expensive parts, no cool systems. I saw the polite, condescending looks. But as Han Solo says, “Hey, she’s got it where it counts.” Our robot Hannibal (named after the general, not the serial killer) had it where it counted.

One of the benefits to being a poor team that’s actually run by the kids (instead of the parents, which we saw a lot of) is that they’re forced to be creative. KISS (keep it simple, stupid) becomes the mantra of choice. They’re forced to design a robot where each part performs at least two functions, instead of four parts that perform one. Guess which design work better when you’re in a timed competition?  Yep, Hannibal.

Our kids scoped out the other robots, especially the cool ones with all the expensive parts and flashing lights. Jacob asked the team how they ran the synchronized lights. They told him that they ran it through their main computer program. Jacob said, “Oh.” He thought, “That will make your robot so slow to respond.” 

Fast forward to the actual competition.  After twenty-four rounds of competition, our homely robot was in first place. Robotics is not a beauty pageant. Where form follows function and not vice versa, success tends to follow. Then the team learned that success frequently breeds envy. One of the judges took us aside and explained that there was a lot of jealousy and another team was trying to get our team disqualified. The judge assured us that our team and robot had done nothing wrong, but that the “sour grapes” were spreading. (We were a first year team, and people felt we hadn’t paid our dues.)

After the twenty-four rounds, the top four teams had a play off.  In our first round, we lost the ability to communicate with our Samantha unit. (We found out later that the building we were using had cellphone blockers, which hadn’t been turned off, and caused us to lose communication.) So we ended up not being able to score any points. At the end of the round, the other teams cheered loudly when we lost. But our team handled themselves well and the judges said how impressed they were by the team’s embodiment of “gracious professionalism.”  And, no, they did not allow us to re-run the play off. So, we didn’t take first place, and I don’t know yet whether we won any awards. At midnight, we left the competition before the awards were given out (which was supposed to be done four hours earlier), we had a two and one half drive home and I’m not great on the roads in the wee hours of the morning.

We may be back next year, but our sponsor, who was very pleased, wants to get enough corporate backing to move the team to the highest level.  In the meantime, life is getting back to normal. But watch out—“Hannibal ad portas.”


  1. Aw, too bad, but it looks like they put their best foot forward (feet? robotic and human?)
    But what a great opportunity, nevertheless!

  2. I'm most pleased to hear how they were cited for professional deportment. Very proud of you, Jake!

  3. Hm...maybe you guys need to bring some fava beans and a nice chianti next time...

  4. As it turns out, we didn't get a single award. We stayed for another hour and a half only to learn we didn't even get a medal. But I still think we really had a neat experience and made a ton of friends.

  5. I think they did great. Medals or no, they gave the other contestants a serious fright.

    That counts for something.

    Better luck next year. :-)

  6. It's often difficult to communicate with a "Samantha unit." LOL