Steam is the name of the game for the 2017 FIRST Robotics Competition, but at the local kickoff party at Oregon State University on Saturday, teams also had to deal with ice and snow.
While more than 200 Willamette Valley high school students have attended the kickoff parties at OSU’s LaSells Stewart Center in recent years, only about 80 students attended the local party Saturday as hazardous weather conditions made travel difficult. Many of the teams that did show up did so with limited numbers, organizers said, with some near 20 percent attendance.
Matt Shuman, kickoff coordinator and instructor for electrical engineering and computer science at OSU, said robotics teams and fans love improvising and problem-solving, so many teams simply worked around the weather Saturday.
“It takes a lot of effort to mobilize entire teams so many had to find alternate venues to practice and others worked from home,” he said. “We always talk about safety and having the right tools for the job. We wear safety glasses and ear protection when we do robotic work. When you travel, if you’re not equipped with the right tools for the weather, it’s better to stay home.”
The local event Saturday morning was part of a national unveiling for the FIRST Robotics Competition Kickoff, which marks the beginning of the six-week design and build season for the contest. Shuman said it was unlikely that Saturday’s weather would alter game preparation in any significant way.
“It’s sort of a frosty beginning, but it will warm up,” he said.
In previous years, teams would pick up the kit of parts needed to build their robots and then drive off to their various meeting places — typically nearby high schools — to begin planning and strategizing for the competition. On Saturday, many teams were forced to improvise.
Crescent Valley High School, which had about 40 members attend the 2016 kickoff party, had four members attend Saturday to pick up the kit. And with Crescent Valley High School closed Saturday, several team members held watch parties for the online unveiling of the game from home.
Corvallis High School also was closed Saturday, so the roughly 30 members of Corvallis Team 997 gathered in Grace Lutheran Church to lay out strategies and practice while waiting out the worst of the storm. Floyd Moore, assistant coach and head mentor for Corvallis, said he had never seen another kickoff day like Saturday in more than eight years in robotics.
“We had freezing rain five years ago and that big snowstorm in 2014 that happened in the middle of our build season, but we’ve never done this,” Moore said. “You have to be able to adapt to a situation, be it weather or the competition. If you can adapt, you’re not going to get frozen out by the changing of the situation.”
Olivia Helback, 18-year-old captain of Team 997, said she was prepared for surprises Saturday morning. She just didn’t expect them to come from the weather.
“In robotics, things come up that you don’t expect,” she said. “Robots break, a vital person can’t show up, and this is just another thing. The weather is bad so we’re meeting somewhere else. If our optimal solution isn’t available, how can we think of different solutions to this problem? I think it’s incredibly valuable to be ready to adapt and not just give up.”
The 2017 challenge, known as “FIRST Steamworks,” will feature many new challenges, as teams will be chaged with building robots capable of collecting balls to shoot into goals, delivering gears to players in the middle of the field, and then latching on to an “airship” before the end of the match by ascending ropes. It is the first competition that will include players within the arena.
Helback, a four-year veteran of FIRST Robotics, said the game appears to be the most complex and interesting that she’s seen.
“We have people on the field in towers and robots climbing ropes, which I don’t think has ever been done before,” she said. “It’s a unique game and I’m very excited about it.”
Helback added that the Corvallis team is more than ready to meet the challenge.
“I think we’re very prepared. I think we’re the most prepared we’ve ever been,” she said. “I think we’re really going to go far this year.”