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Image: Adriana M. GroismanAs part of the FIRST Tech Challenge’s continuing evolution to incorporate regularly used technology and broaden the diversity of program participants, FIRST has announced a new technology platform for the upcoming 2015-16 season.

According to FIRST, the new platform features robot and driver-station controls powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 410 processors, commonly found in Android devices.

Due to the prevalence of smartphone technology, this platform will make the program more approachable to students, says FIRST President Don Bossi in an interview with R&D Magazine.

“Kids are becoming really, really comfortable with cellular and mobile technology,” says Bossi. “They kind of have an intuition about it.”

Launched about eight years ago, FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) was created as a program aimed at students in middle and high school. FTC can serve as a middle level between the FIRST LEGO League, aimed at children between nine and 14, and the FIRST Robotics Competition, aimed at high school students, according to Bossi

“Historically, the program has actually used the LEGO Mindstorms robot” and “that was a nice continuation from what kids maybe learned in FIRST LEGO League,” says Bossi.

According to Qualcomm, a sponsor of FIRST, the new “robotics kit uses two mobile devices (either smartphones or tablets) connected by Wi-Fi direct: One is a component on the actual robot, and the other is used to control the robot. Not only will this eliminate some of the complicated hardware and setup that has been needed to host an FTC competition, but also, students will be introduced to the creative potential of a device they may otherwise take for granted.”

This opens the door to children whose natural inclination may be not to explore the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) areas, says Bossi.

Previous FTC seasons required teams connect through a central field management system, which Bossi describes as a single “wireless system” for all robots on the field. Now, the communication is point-to-point.

In FTC competitions, teams build and program robots, which weigh between 20 and 30 lbs, and then compete in an alliance format against other teams. Each year, the challenge changes.

According to Bossi, around 4,000 teams across North America compete in the competition. An additional 700 to 800 teams are from outside the continent. Teams consist of between 10 and 15 kids. “By keeping the teams a little bit smaller, it’s all hands on deck,” says Bossi, alluding to the fact all students immerse themselves in each facet of the team.

He estimates registration and robot equipment cost around $1,500, with about $1,200 worth of the equipment being reusable each year. “We think it’s more accessible to more schools and more kids,” he says.

“Teams can use their existing equipment in the exciting new platform,” said Ken Johnson, FTC’s director. “A simple interface between Android devices and their current sensors and motor controllers will allow for a simple transition. Sensors built into the Snapdragon-powered devices will expand the teams’ options in future competitions as well.”

With the new platform, FIRST teams will also harness the power of the programming language Java, used by more than 8 million programmers and built into 3 billion devices. “It’s clearly a (programming language) that kids are going to find a lot of use, and a lot of different applications for,” says Bossi.

It’s all about engagement. Bossi says as students becomes more conversant in the platform, there are further layers, like an onion, to peel back and explore.

• CONFERENCE AGENDA ANNOUNCED:

The highly-anticipated educational tracks for the 2015 R&D 100 Awards & Technology Conference feature 28 sessions, plus keynote speakers Dean Kamen and Oak Ridge National Laboratory Director Thom Mason.  Learn more.

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