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Gear Heads

The Hardest Fun You'll Ever Have

Fast growing FIRST Robotics gets students interested in STEM subjects and careers—science, technology, engineering and math—using the excitement of sports combined with the rigors of science and technology. For the 2015-16 school year, approximately 75,000 students and 19,000 mentors made up 3,128 teams.


FIRST Robotics competition redefines winning by evaluating teams based on the quality of the overall experience. Called Gracious Professionalism®, FIRST Robotics rewards teams for cooperative competition, achievements in design excellence, demonstrated team spirit, and the ability to overcome obstacles.

Teams embrace a variety of students with different lifestyles but a common interest. Students who normally would not socialize with each other, find out they share more in common than they think.

Students grow their skills in computer programming and machine tool technology. They also learn soft skills in teamwork, interpersonal relationships and effective communication. Their coaches and mentors provide project management, engineering and technical design support.

FIRST teams receive a standard kit of parts, along with a set of rules. They have six weeks to raise funds, design a team brand, and build and program a robot to compete in a field game against other robots. With their standard parts and budget, teams are encouraged to buy or make specialized parts for their robot.

For the competition, robots compete against each other through maneuvers that may include throwing balls or flying discs into goals, placing inner tubes onto racks, hanging on bars or structures, overcoming course obstacles or balancing robots on narrow beams. To keep the excitement fresh and give teams a level playing field, the game-field changes every year. Students do not know in advance what their robots will need to compete successfully.

After joining FIRST Robotics, more than 88% of the student participants have more interest in school, 90% have more interest in taking a challenging math or science course, and 90% are more interested in attending college after high school. FIRST Robotics students also qualify for more than $25 million in college scholarships.

The Gear Heads

A local team, the Gear Heads, treated Alexandria Industries to a demonstration of its robot that competed in the 2016 FIRST Robotics Competition. With this year’s rulebook and game field, the team needed its robot to meet five objectives:

  • Move in any direction (forward, backward, side-to-side and diagonally)
  • Climb over course obstacles
  • Shoot a 10-inch dodgeball
  • Climb a tower
  • Weigh less than 120 pounds

The students divided into small groups, prototyping different subsystems using Legos®, wood, and other materials to visualize how a design idea might work. Student programmers test their theories by simulating robotics and machine function using design software prior to building scaled models and final assemblies.

While many teams used tank like tread, or large pneumatic wheels on their robots, the Gear Heads chose a non-traditional drivetrain for its robot’s Mecanum wheels. The conventional wheel made with a series of rollers attached to the circumference, allow the robot to be more agile and easily maneuver itself on the field.


With help from Alexandria Industries, the students added a pair of 31-inch long legs that would extend out from under the robot and enable it to walk over obstacles. The team also used aluminum extruded 1-inch tubing for the robot’s scissor-lift system needed to climb a structure in the field to win the

The robot used a linear actuator for the scissor-lift, and window motors to pick up the dodge ball and eject it (throw it) through a window to score points. A vision system was used to aim the ball for the shot.

gear-heads-4Game Day

During a practice round, the Gear Heads’ robot experienced some bugs in the software but the students were able to troubleshoot the issues. On day-one of the competition, the robot was performing great until it suffered damage that rendered the ball handler and shooter unusable. Fortunately, the students were able to repair the parts overnight with help from the local machine shop, and the robot performed excellently on day two of the competition.

Out of 63 teams, the Gear Heads’ robot ranked 15th overall in the competition – a terrific standing in the world of robotics competitions.