Members of Team Phoenix attended the Oklahoma City Regional of the FIRST Robotics Challenge (FRC) on March 17th & 18th.  We were there only as observers--the cost of fielding an FRC team starts at about $8k-$10k--but it was still a good thing to go see.

One recurring theme that does not seem, to me at least, to be such a good idea is to have only 6 weeks or so to design, build, test, and compete with a robot.  FRC does this, BEST does this, and several others do as well.  The idea is to simulate the necessity of rapidly developing a robot to reach the market, which is understandable on one level.  But yet it took General Atomic considerably more than 6 weeks to develop the Predator UAV--which is essentially a flying robot, and NASA gives JPL considerably more than 6 weeks to develop each generation of Mars rovers.  After all, if it costs $3 billion and takes 18 months to send a robot to Mars, it had better work when it gets there!  To put school-age kids through the ringer like many of these robotics competitions do, while they're in school, means there's simply not enough hours in the day to do homework AND take on the considerable work necessary to design, build, and test a robot in such a short time frame. I know from our own experience our kids' grades frequently suffer when they're designing and building a robot.  I think it would be prudent for the organizers of such competitions extend the time frame to 9 or even 12 weeks, or do more during the summer, when they're out of school.

FRC also uses a rather odd competiton system.  There are many rounds of qualification games; each team plays 10 matches in all, and the teams are then ranked by the results of the matches.   The top 8 teams then move on to the quarterfinals, but then each of the 8 then select 2 additional teams from the ones ranked 9th and lower to make up their own 'alliance'.  The #1 finisher's alliance then plays a best-of-3 series against the #8 finisher's alliance; the #2 finisher's alliance plays the same against the #7 finisher, and so on.

The net result is that, as was the case this year, otherwise marginally-qualified teams can make the finals, and then win with their alliance (the winning alliance consists of those three teams originally selected in the quarterfinals) and go on to the national competition.  Such was the case this year.  Tulsa Memorial (team 932) ranked 1st after the qualification round; they then selected the Paolo (KS) High School team (#935), which was ranked 9th after the qualification round.  But then they selected the Grove (OK) High School team, which had finished the qualification round ranked 41st with a record of 3-6-1.  I don't know why Tulsa Memorial chose Grove, but Grove had real problems scoring, and may have been selected for their blocking ability; I don't know

But it still seems strange, and not very sporting, to have such a lowly-ranked team one of the winners of the entire competition.  But it was all in accordance with the rules, so there's not much room to complain.