First off, FRC is not Battlebots*. FRC, or FIRST Robotics Competition is a sport where high school students design, build, and program robots compete by playing a game with and against other robots.

FIRST, or “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology” was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen (inventor of the Segway). The 501(c)(3) not-for-profit public charity designs accessible, innovative programs that motivate young people to pursue education and career opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math, while building self-confidence, knowledge, and life skills.

FRC involves teams of high school students and adult mentors who design, fabricate, and program a large robot that will compete at one or more regional tournaments with 40+ schools each year. Success at the qualifying events enables teams to compete at the FIRST Championships in Houston, TX against 400+ schools from around the world.

What is the competition?

Every year, FIRST releases a new “game” at the beginning of January. The launch includes a cute animated video demonstrating how the game will be played that every team watches at least 500 times. We also get a game piece or pieces that will be used in the game...these have consisted of a large velcro disk & rubber ball (2019), a milk crate in a nylon wrap (2018), and plastic balls, gears, frisbees, foam soccer balls, and so on. Teams also download a 100+ page rulebook that defines the rules for the game and the robot. Teams have six weeks from the launch to design, fabricate, assemble, and test their robot before locking it in a giant bag...only to be opened at their first regional competition [New for 2020, teams no longer have to bag their robot].

Regional events consist of 40 to 60 teams. There are 80-90 qualifying matches where teams will be randomly assigned to three team alliances which change from match to match; each team will play 8 to 10 qualifying matches. Teams use the time in between their matches to repair and modify their robot.

A phrase you’ll often hear within FIRST is “Coopertition®” which means means competing always, but assisting and enabling others when you can. This is important as a team may be your adversary in one match, but your partner in another match.

Each match is 2 minutes 30 seconds long. The first 15 seconds is reserved for autonomous play, which means the robot must operate without driver assistance. In 2019, FIRST introduced a blackout curtain during this time period that blocked the drivers view of the field, but allowed teams to drive via a camera mounted on the robot. [One criticism often directed at FRC is that they are just big remote controlled robots...in some cases that’s true, but the better teams use a special camera called a Limelite that detects UV light that is reflected by special tape on the field elements. This special camera allows teams to program their robots so the robot can automatically advance to field elements from 10’ away. By maximizing autonomous operation, teams can speed up scoring opportunities and decrease opportunities for driver error.]

Teams are ranked by the average of Ranking Points (RP) they score per match. Generally there’s a max of (4) RP per match that can be earned.

  • Two points are earned if your alliance wins the match...and you get zero points if your team loses the match.

  • One point is awarded for completing a special task during the match (in 2019 teams had to completely fill at least one 3-tier rocket with disks & balls)

  • One point is given for completing a special task at the end of the game (in 2019, multiple robots had to climb onto elevated platforms).

To win a match, your 3-team alliance has to score the most points which you earn by scoring with the game pieces...or lose by getting penalized. Most alliances pick one of their team robots to play defense against the other team (only one robot can play defense at a time). It sounds complicated, it is, but after watching a few matches you learn how the game is played and scored.

At the end of qualifying, the top 8 teams are selected as alliance captains. The top alliance captain picks their second partner first and then the next captain picks in descending order. Alliance captains can pick from any team in the Regional. During the first round of picks, an alliance can also select a lower ranked alliance team captain (#1 picks #2). Once the second partners are picked, the lowest ranked alliance picks their third partner, then the next highest alliance picks and so on where the top alliance picks their 3rd partner last. The eight alliances then play each other in a bracket format until the winning alliance is determined. All three teams on the winning alliance earn an invitation to Championships in Houston (or Detroit depending on their location) and a highly sought after Blue Banner

663 was part of the winning alliance at the 2019 Central Valley Regional with teams 1323 & 1678

Running alongside the competitive event is the judged portion of the competition. Typically there are around 18 judges (they wear blue polo shirts) that talk to teams throughout the event, evaluating their robot design and team characteristics. The judges hand out 20+ awards, some of which include an invite to the Championships..

The Championships in Houston are amazing. Imagine 400 FRC teams competing in 6 divisions. Where the division alliance winners compete in a round robin tournament. The top two teams then compete on the field where the Houston Astros in front of 20,000+ fans (In Detroit they compete where the Lions play). During this weeklong event, concurrent championship events are taking place for FIRST Lego League (FLL) and FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) under the same roof. It’s such an amazing sight to see so thousands of young people and mentors coming together in STEM competition.

HBO’s “Real Sports” show featured a segment on FRC back in June 2018. It gives a good overview of FRC.

*Note: Battlebots is a gladiatorial cage fight where there is only one winner and one loser.