It's 11:00 a.m. on a Thursday morning, and 15,000 school-age children from elementary schoolers, to teens, to college kids, are swarming the halls of the Expo Center in Louisville, Kentucky. They are dressed in costume, sporting clown wigs, hunting gear, traditional dress from countries across the world, and, interestingly, factory-type goggles. And many are hauling or wheeling large square boxes, some appearing to weigh more than the children themselves.
The kids, along with hundreds of parents, coaches, and guardians, come from 31 different countries—spanning from Finland to Bahrain to New Zealand. And while the music, outfits, and food trucks give the place a music-festival-meets-AnimeCon feel, these kids are here for business: to compete at VEX Worlds 2016, the largest robotics competition for middle and high schoolers across the globe (although VEX includes elementary and college students, too). Their cargo? Robots that their teams have carefully constructed, some over the course of an entire year. Their glasses? Safety goggles, required for the competition.
By 12:30 p.m. on Thursday, the teams must have had their robots inspected, to make sure they conform to the right height, materials, and other standards, and later Thursday afternoon, the official qualifying rounds began.
VEX Worlds has run an annual competition since 2008. Since its inception, the conference has grown by about 30% each year, according to Vicki Grisanti, communications director at the Robotics Education & Competition Foundation (REC). Next year, they plan to have 20,000 attendees. This is the second year the competition has been held in Louisville—it keeps outgrowing its venues, said Grisanti.
Dubbed "the Olympics of Robotics," the 2016 competition, presented by the Northrop Grumman Foundation, includes three main challenges: VEX IQ (for elementary and middle schoolers); VEX Robotics Competition (middle and high school); and VEX U (college-level). (Watch the livestreams here for VEX IQ Challenge Elementary School, VEX IQ Challenge Middle School, VEX Robotics Competition Middle School, VEX Robotics Competition High School and VEX U—make sure you click "webcast" tab).
Each year, the REC presents a new challenge, and this year's is "Nothing But Net"—a hoop game. These square robots, which look similar to the untrained eye, are tasked with collecting soft NERF balls, about the size of mangos, and shooting baskets. Most of the robots for this specific challenge are box-like, and include a flywheel that can scoop up balls and spit them back out.
There are currently 1,000 teams at the championship, whittled down from 16,000. Teams typically have about 4-6 members, or 8-10 for the older teams, although only three members are allowed to participate on the field during each match. There are "pit areas," booths in which robots are worked on, tinkered with; "practice fields," for getting ready, and "fields," the official turf for the matches. Hovering around the fields are judges, ball boys, and spectators sitting on bleachers.
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In each game, two randomly chosen teams—so, a total of six kids and two robots—are put together in one corner, with two other teams in an adjacent corner. The two teams must come up with a strategy for collecting and shooting balls into the basket. Is one robot better than another at scooping balls? Or aiming and shooting? Then a 15-second timer begins, and the robots compete in "autonomous mode," or fully-programmed. The second part of the competition is "driver mode," in which the teams are allowed to remotely-control their robots in order to move around the field and shoot the baskets. Each team has a chance for 10 qualifying rounds, where they are able to rack up points.
Teams win by a combination of points earned during matches, "robot skills" challenges, and "engineer's notebooks," which judges look at to see how the teams have documented their work, and interviews with judges. The three largest groups are from the US, Mexico, and China, although the winner of the excellence award last year was a team from New Zealand. This year's excellence award will be announced Saturday at 4:00 p.m.
SEE: Bots for tots: Five robots that help kids learn (ZDNet)
Not only are the teams totally unknown to each other before the competition, but there's another hurdle: many of the children don't speak the same language. And while REC provides translators in Mandarin and Spanish, and a team of translators from Haiti, with 31 countries represented, the language barrier is often something that the students themselves must overcome in order to strategize and play together.
This is the first time a team of refugees from different parts of Syria, including two students, a coach, a project manager, and a translator, have attended VEX Worlds 2016. The "Hope for Syria" team, which came out of the Lebanon-based Multi Aid Programs, has named their robot "Robot-gee," as in refugee, said Fadi Alhalabi, a member of the team. They hope to fight stereotypes about Syrian refugees.
"Just by being here," said Alhalabi, "we have already won."
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Hope Reese has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Hope Reese is a journalist in Louisville, KY. Her writing has been featured in The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, Playboy, Undark Magazine, VICE, Vox, and other publications.