We, Robot

The Nu-trons are halfway through the regional round of the FIRST robotics tournament, and technically speaking, they are having a crappy weekend.

For the past two days, the team of Boston-area teenagers has guided its handbuilt robot through a series of games resembling a sci-fi version of pickup basketball with two ad-hoc alliances consisting of three robots battling on a playing field roughly half the size of a tennis court. The preliminary matches are over, and the Nu-trons and the 50 other teams gathered in Manchester, New Hampshire's Verizon Wireless Arena have had their records tallied. The top eight   are about to advance to the elimination stage, where each will invite two others to join them for their title run. The Nu-trons are not among that top group — not even close — so now the squad's only chance is to use the 10-minute intermission before the picks are made to convince one of the top seeds to choose them.

That challenge has fallen to the Nu-trons' primary robot driver, Matt Skillin. Before he heads out on his mission, a Nu-trons mentor, Northeastern student Kyle Henry, gives him a quick pep talk. “No pressure,” Henry says. “Just be the stud I know you can be.”

A Dorchester kid with an athletic build and a fondness for bandannas, Skillin looks like the type who beats up boys as smart as him. But while making his pitches, he's as smooth as a veteran telemarketer, emphatically listing the Nu-trons' strengths, casually deflecting criticisms, and generally kissing ass. Rejoining his teammates, he asks, “Do I have some brown on my nose?” He feels particularly positive about his conversation with the representative of a team known as the Aluminum Chefs.

The time for the top seeds to make their selections arrives. The scene resembles a schoolyard dodge-ball draft: the triumphant captains standing together, the hopefuls trying — with looks of cautious optimism or smug confidence or plain fear — to will themselves into being chosen. Skillin's eyes bore into the boy from the Aluminum Chefs, telepathically trying to tip the scale in favor of the Nu-trons or, at the very least, freak him out.

“This is it,” one of the Nu-trons says. All the team's hard work, all the weeks of sleep-depriving Saturday morning meetings, new friendships, and bad pizza, are about to come down to the choice of a skinny high schooler wearing a cheap paper toque. And no one in the building would have it any other way. Since the first FIRST (it stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) in 1992 when 28 teams squared off in a high school gym, the competition has expanded to include 1,000 teams from seven countries. For kids whose interest in science and technology might earn them exclusion and mockery at school, FIRST provides a rare outlet to revel in their geekiness. Here in sports-obsessed New England, where athletes are deities and engineers are engineers, they gain an extra benefit: Without ever hitting a slider or catching a touchdown, participants get to hear the roar of the crowd and feel the pride and pangs of adrenaline that come from performing in front of adulating fans. At FIRST tournaments, these kids aren't confined to being geeks. They can be geek gods.

Clearing his throat, the Aluminum Chef rep steps to the mike.  

The Nu-trons' journey to the regionals begins on a winter morning in a stuffy Northeastern lecture hall, where the team crowds around a projection screen watching a broadcast by FIRST's founder, Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway human transporter, holder of 150 patents, and possibly the smartest man ever born on Long Island. Appearing via satellite, Kamen is dressed, as always, in denim, his fabric of choice.

Each year, FIRST pits robots against one another in a different game. This year's is called Triple Play. Kamen explains the complicated rules. Teams will try to use their robots to pick up four-sided plastic triangles, or tetrahedrons, and push them into (for one point) or drop them on top of (three points) nine pyramid-shaped, opensided goals lined up three by three across the field. Bonuses will be awarded for placing tetras in rows of three (a la tick-tack-toe), and teams can play defense by blocking the opposing alliance's robots.

After Kamen signs off, the Nu-trons break into groups to debate the best design for their robot. Eventually, they decide on a tentative blueprint, sketching out a contraption that will look a bit like a miniature backhoe. The plans call for a retractable hooked arm the robot will use to score, as well as a light frame that will allow the machine to be easily maneuvered when it's on the defensive.

Moments later, two kids in bulky parkas walk in carrying boxes emblazoned with the FIRST insignia. The parts have arrived. The Nu-trons give a standing ovation.

“We've got six weeks,” Skillin yells. “Let's get it on!”

Building a robot requires three basic skills: mechanical engineering, for constructing the drive train, arm, frame, and chassis; software programming, for writing the code that controls the machine when it's in “autonomous mode” (the period of the game when the robot must move on its own); and electronics, for the wiring that makes all the parts function together. With “Jack and Diane” blasting through the intercom in the Nu-trons' lab, the team splits up to work on those tasks. The family dynamic is hard to ignore. The college students mentoring the Nu-trons serve as cooler older siblings, showing them what to do while occasionally dropping sexual innuendoes the kids pretend to get. Faculty coordinator Don Goldthwaite (with his crescent-moon mustache, he calls to mind a wayward cowboy) plays the father, taking care of tasks requiring power tools and keeping everyone on good behavior. George Perna — an engineer from Textron Systems, the team's corporate sponsor — is the stern, all-knowing grandfather. He answers questions no one else can. More importantly, he orders the pizza.

While the team spends a seemingly inordinate amount of time sanding one of the robot's axles, conversation turns to rival teams. It becomes apparent that Buzz, a team from Enfield, Connecticut, dominates the competition. “They're pretty pimp,” says Skillin.

“They're basically cheating,” says Zach Shapiro, a Northeastern mentor and one of the team leaders.

Josh Miranda, another mentor, gives him a look. “No they're not.”  

“Anyone that has an advantage over us, I call cheating,” Shapiro says. “Some people call it strategy. I call it cheating.”

The morning of the first day of the regional competition, the bus leaves from Northeastern at 7:30 a.m. The practice run the Nu-trons put their robot through the previous afternoon has them feeling confident. Well, mostly.   “Yeah, everything was perfect,” says Skillin, a white bandanna tied around his hat. “Except the drive train and the arm broke.” With some frantic repairs, they got the robot rolling again. Its ability to scoop up tetras, however, remains decidedly in question.

An hour later, the bus arrives at the Verizon Wireless Arena. In the stands, teams are factioned by color like well-organized, dorky gangs, each one displaying enough costumes, banners, and posters to put a party-supply store to shame. A lot of the teams' names make clever plays on the word robot: There are the Robo-Rebels and Robobee. Others, like Tough Techs and Power Knights, hope to convey that their members are badasses, yet technologically proficient.

As Evanescence's “Bring Me to Life” booms through the sound system, everyone in the building dances, chants, and trades souvenir buttons. A boy in a Cold War-era gas mask walks by. His vest indicates he's with the Riot Crew. One team wears complete uniforms, including banners, swords, and other medieval paraphernalia, all of it made of duct tape; it calls itself, appropriately enough, the Duct Tape Bandits. Compared to the rest of the crowd, the Nu-trons display relatively conservative taste in attire. Even if you count their red capes.

“It's like a G-rated version of Mardi Gras, except with pins instead of beads . . .
and mostly guys,” says Emily Pease, the only female Northeastern mentor for the Nu-trons. She reconsiders. “Actually, it's not really like Mardi Gras.”

Aside from the ridiculous outfits, what's most striking about the FIRST kids is how helpful they are to each other. Teams routinely share parts and tools with rivals and explain their weaknesses in detail. And — despite my repeated attempts to instigate it — no one ever talks trash.

“There's no point, because of the alliances,” says Kyle Henry. “I mean, if we face a team that trashes us, and then they have to partner with us, we're gonna screw them over, so it's better not to talk trash.”

That's nice. But, really, who do you hate most?

“We don't hate anyone.”

Not even Buzz?

“Stop it.”

Five minutes before their first match, as a call goes over the loudspeaker for a grease gun, the Nu-trons check the schedule to see who they're playing. “We're going against Buzz,” Henry says.

“Oh crap,” says Shapiro. “We're done.”

The emcee, who seems to have been left behind after a monster-truck rally, calls the teams onto the field. It quickly becomes clear that the Nu-tron robot's mechanical arm hasn't been completely fixed. Finally, with 15 seconds left, the robot manages to grab a tetra and head for the middle goal. It takes a painfully long time to cover the distance; all the while, the entire Nu-tron team is on its feet, screaming. The robot lifts the tetra higher and higher to place it over the goal. Just before time expires, with redemption in the Nu-trons' grasp, the Buzz robot rushes over and knocks the tetra away. The Nu-trons groan. Final score: 36-12, bad guys.

Still operating a crippled robot, the Nu-trons lose the next two matches. The team decides to switch to a pragmatic defensive strategy, which pays off as they win two in a row. In the sixth match, playing with a team using plumbing tubing for its robot's arm, they score more points than the other alliance, only to be beaten because a team member steps just out of his designated area, the equivalent to losing on a balk.

In the last match of the day, one of the Nu-trons partners will be BERT, a team with a good chance of earning a top seed. “There's still hope,” Skillin says. “If we play good D and protect them, they could pick us for the playoffs.” Just before the game is set to begin, Dean Kamen, still dressed in denim, walks by. Skillin gets him to sign his bandanna, then spends the next several minutes raising the roof. Kamen's signature becomes the Nu-trons lucky rainbow. They begin chanting, “Nu-tron! Nu-tron! Nu-tron!” Parents wave pompoms.

The opening whistle sounds. For the first 30 seconds, the robot shines, Skillin guiding it boldly as it engages its opponent. It's interfering with the other alliance's chemistry and wowing teams that know the value of a strong defense when . . . it tips over and is rendered useless for the rest of the match. Conspiracy charges fly in the Nu-trons' huddle: “Our 'bot does not tip. It got pushed. That's crap. We tested it.”

Two more losses on day two of the competition only lower the Nu-trons' rating. They finish ranked 47th. Taking their seats in the stands, the Nu-trons chat nervously about their prospects for being chosen for the playoffs. Alphonse DePalma, a Boston Latin sophomore, tries to put a positive spin on things. “If 46 of the other machines break,” he says, “we're in the top four.”

The Aluminum Chef rep leans forward slightly and prepares to announce his selections. As the first of the two slots in the alliance go to another team, the Nu-trons fall silent, save for a short blond boy with braces and wire-rimmed glasses who keeps muttering “Just pick us.”

Unswayed by those prayers and Skillin's unwavering stare, the Aluminum Chef rep blurts out his decision. “With our final pick, we select Team Force.”

As the members of the lucky team erupt, the Nu-trons do something you'd never see at a Red Sox-Yankees game: They jump up and cheer right along with them. They continue yelling and clapping right up to the point when it's time to pack up their gear and head home.

“It isn't the end of the world,” Skillin says, taking off his hat to ogle his Dean Kamen-signed bandanna. “But it's definitely the end of New Hampshire.”