Urgent care for robots: Before Broward competition, surgery for the broken


If you go

What: 2014 South Florida Regional FIRST Robotics Competition

Where: Greater Fort Laudedale/Broward County Convention Center, 1950 Eisenhower Blvd., Hall A

When: Opening ceremonies Friday 9 a.m., last match 5:45 p.m.; Opening Saturday 9 a.m.; eliminations begin at 1 p.m.

Cost: Free and open to the public

Note: Must wear closed-toe shoes to go in the robot workshop.


Joshua Stephenson nervously stood by his precious baby during surgery on Thursday.

“I know he’s in good hands,” Stephenson said as he watched the doctors work quickly to make Woolly’s arm work better.

Woolly, short for Woolly Mammoth, isn’t a cuddly baby and the doctor doesn’t have a medical degree.

Woolly is a robot, made out of metal, PVC pipes and elastic bands, and the doctors are Florida Power & Light mechanical engineers who are trained to work on power plants.

For Stephenson, 18, the last-minute fixes to weld pieces of metal together could be the difference between his Dirty Mechanics Robotics team from Boca Raton winning and losing the 2014 South Florida Regional FIRST Robotics Competition Friday and Saturday at the Greater Fort Laudedale/Broward County Convention Center.

“We are working out all the kinks today,” he said as he watched the FPL workers, who had earlier set up a Robot Urgent Care center outside. “So we are ready for the competition.”

The convention center buzzed with teenagers and their mentors Thursday as they prepared for the regional competition dubbed by some as “the super bowl of the mind.” The competition features 47 teams vying over two days for a chance at the world championship later this month in Missouri.

In January, teams got a kit and information on this year’s game, called Aerial Assist. The goal: to build a robot that could score by launching balls through a goal post as well as assist other robots. It’s all about teamwork —human and ‘bot. Each team raises money and comes up with ideas on how to create a winning robot.

“We take this very seriously,” said Greg King, 17, who is part of S.P.A.M., a robotics team from Martin County. The team recently took first place in the Orlando Regional Competition and will compete in the world championship. “It’s a sport for nerds.”

Building a robot that can compete involves for than just slapping together some metal and other objects, teens and their mentors said Thursday. It’s also about teamwork and using math and science.

“Everybody is helping everybody,” said Ignacio Ortega, 16, from Archimedean Upper Conservatory in Kendall. Ignacio and his teammates also took advantage of help from FPL engineers who set up the Robot Urgent Care.

FIRST — For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology — was founded in 1989 by inventor Dean Kamen to encourage young people to participate and learn about science and tech. South Florida’s Regional Program is sponsored by NASA and FPL.

Across South Florida, STEM Education — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — is being promoted with school groups and outside organizations forming teams with names like Shark Attack, Minotaur and The Moose.

On Thursday, South Florida’s teams were joined by others from as far away as Massachusetts, Mexico and Virginia. Each team had its own shop where team members could work on their robots. On Thursday, creators and their robots took to an indoor practice field to test the out the machines.

When the buzzer sounded for a match Thursday, the fans in the stands went wild. A group of girls from Mexico dressed in yellow waved their flag and chanted for their team. Across the bleachers, a group from Miami’s Terra Environmental Research Institute wore lemon stem hats to match the team’s saying: “When life gives you lemons, build robots.”

The robots were put in teams of three and then randomly selected to play each other. The object for the the robots — which are controlled by a team member who uses a control or joystick — is to move around the 27-by-54-foot playing field and help their fellow robots score goals.

Zachary Webster, a senior from Terra, said he and his team have been working long hours to get their robot in shape to lead them to Missouri.

But the team’s mentor, William Baltazar said everyone who built a robot is a winner.

“It’s not easy,” he said. “These students deserve a lot of credit.”

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