Press Release

NASA Langley Promotes Student Robot Teams’ Lunacy

By SpaceRef Editor
March 16, 2009
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RICHMOND, VA. — Teen-agers are travelling all the way from Brazil to Virginia this week to compete in an engineering challenge that involves a remote control robot and some giant “moon rocks.”

They’re one of 59 teams, mostly from Virginia and North Carolina, scheduled to demonstrate their skills in this year’s Virginia regional FIRST Robotics competition at Virginia Commonwealth University’s (VCU) Siegel Center in Richmond. The tenth annual three-day event, which is free and open to the public March 19-21, is sponsored by NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton and VCU.

“The atmosphere at a FIRST Robotics competition is hard to describe,” said Jeff Seaton, an aerospace engineer at NASA Langley, who has been involved with the regional competition for 12 years. “It’s a combination of a rock concert and the NCAA basketball tournament, except you have robots and it’s focused on engineering.”

That excitement is what inventor and founder Dean Kamen was looking for when he founded FIRST or For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology in 1989. He wanted to inspire youngsters’ participation in science and technology, “by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology heroes,” according to the FIRST Robotics website.

Participation is what the competition is all about. Working with engineering mentors, high school students had six weeks to design, build and test a robot that can meet a specific engineering challenge. This year that challenge, called “Lunacy,” is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, which happens in July.

Seventeen hundred teams from the U.S., Great Britain, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Mexico, the Netherlands and Israel all picked up a common kit of parts that included motors, batteries, a control system and automation components back in January. The hitch … there are no instructions.

“The students get the chance to work side by side with practicing professionals,” said former team mentor Seaton. “They’re also part of a team that’s solving a problem that looks impossible. Over the years I’ve been very surprised at some of the innovative ideas the students have come up with and actually built.”

Lunacy requires robots to throw “moon rocks” into an opposing team’s trailers while moving around the “crater.” That’s the name of the playing field, which for the first time ever is not fully carpeted. Instead, to simulate the moon’s one-sixth gravity, the 27- by 54-foot surface is made of a slick polymer wallboard. Combine that with custom-made slippery wheels and teams will feel like they’re driving on ice.

Adding to the challenge, robots will be hitched to trailers. Plus human players will be part of the scoring process, something that hasn’t happened in a few years. Besides maneuvering the robots by remote control, team members can shoot “moon rocks” worth two points into the opposing team’s trailers from outside the crater. During the last 20 seconds of the game, the human players can shoot “super cells” worth 15 points. But to get those high scoring “cells,” players have to trade in “empty cells” that have been delivered by their robots from the opposite side of the playing field.

For a video explanation of the rules of the game, please go to:

The Virginia event is one of 41 regional contests that will lead up to the 2009 FIRST Championship at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, April 16-18. For more information about this weekend’s event at the Siegel Center, check the Internet at:

And for more information on NASA’s Robotics Alliance Project visit:

SpaceRef staff editor.