West Valley City • It's hard enough for a human to toss a plastic disc 50 feet into a small slot. Task that human with building a robot made of wheels, sensors and motors to do the same thing on its own, and you begin to understand the challenge of this year's FIRST Robotics Competition.
The annual science and technology contest for high school students is staging its regional event this week at the Maverik Center in West Valley City, and teams of Rocky Mountain whiz kids are prepared for fierce competition. The event is co-sponsored by the Larry H. Miller Group, Platt Electric Supply and the University of Utah.
"It was kind of scary at first," said 16-year-old Danielle Hutchinson of Gallup, N.M., about coming to the stadium with her robot, "Beep." "But we're having a lot of fun."
More than 40 teams of students from 10 states are competing Friday and Saturday. The event is open to the public. On Thursday, the competitors were prepping their robots and taking practice runs on the playing field to make sure things worked.
The goal of this year's competition is to build a robot from a kit and spare parts that can autonomously shoot four flying discs from about 20 feet to 40 feet through a series of slots.
Teams with names such as "Red Rock Robotics," "Flying Hedgehogs," and "The Midnight Mechanics" were making final adjustments on their homemade machines. Some of the robots wobbling along the field were up to 5 feet tall, and others featured steel construction, rubber wheels, lights and plastic sheeting.
"I'm pretty confident," Tom Hamel, 18, of Northern Utah Academy for Math, Engineering & Science, said about his team's robot, "Grandma Lee" (in honor of one member's grandmother). "I expect to go far. It's different. We put in hundreds of hours building it."
The FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Competition was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen (the inventor of the Segway) as a way to promote those fields. Today, the contest includes more than 2,500 teams worldwide from more than 50 countries, said Regional Director Richard Anderson. Each year, the game is different.
This year, the robots not only have to drive up to a line and throw the discs, but they also will have to do it via remote control by one of the team members while going against another team playing defense. Another section of the competition requires the robots to climb a metal pyramid while shooting the disc into the slot.
States represented at the Utah event include California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana and Oregon. Twenty of the teams are from Utah. Some scholarships will be awarded and the top six teams from this week's event will move on to the national competition later this year in St. Louis.
Hutchinson's "All Girl" team of three is just that, an all-female group surrounded by a majority of male-dominated teams.
"It's been pretty hard," she said about spending the past five weeks designing and building her robot with team members Kayla Begay, 16, and Rebecca Carver, 17, all from Gallup High School. "At times, we were always multitasking between the three of us."
But the point of the competition, according to Marshall Wright of the Governor's Office of Economic Development, which is a co-sponsor, is to prepare students for real-world experiences in business, including finding sponsors to fund their robots.
"It teaches them the environment of cooperation," he said. "It's almost like running a small business to the extent that they get this task and they have to understand the task and break it down to build the robot."
Wright said it is the state's priority to bring more science and technology businesses to Utah because the jobs are higher paying.
"We're hiring between 150 and 200 computer scientists and software engineers this year," said Joyce Peters, Workforce Strategic Planner for Hill Air Force Base. Peters was involved in planning this year's event. "These [the students] are my future employees."
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Utah FIRST Robotics Competition
What • More than 40 high school teams from 10 states, including Utah, compete with robots that must throw a plastic disc through a slot. It is free and open to the public.
Where • Maverik Center, 3200 S. Decker Lake Dr., West Valley City
When • 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday