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The virtual future comes to FIRST robotics competition

March 16, 2021
The dream of remote connectivity has become reality, and the next generation is lucid

For the past few years, I’ve had the honor of being a judge at the Chicago Suburban League Tournament for FIRST Tech Challenge. As most of you know, FIRST is an acronym—for inspiration and recognition of science and technology. It’s an organization founded by Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, among countless other innovations. FIRST helps to empower young people with the skills and confidence they need to succeed.

Its programs start with FIRST Lego League, hit stride with FIRST Tech Challenge and culminate with FIRST Robotics. By combining the excitement of sport with the rigors of science and technology, FIRST Robotics Competition calls itself “the hardest fun you’ll ever have.”

Teams raise funds and develop teamwork skills to build and program industrial-size robots to compete against like-minded competitors. FIRST says the experience is “as close to real-world engineering as a student can get.”

I’m still not sure whether this year’s competition was the exception to the rule or the virtual event, due to the constraints of the COVID pandemic, was truer than ever to that motto of being just like the real thing.

While my skepticism led me cautiously into judging this year’s event, I was unsurprisingly amazed by the effective use of remote connectivity. Using a technology that most of us considered bleeding-edge just a few years ago, FIRST was able to accomplish what typically involves the grounds of the local community college, hundreds of students, families and volunteers, myriad robotic components and an inordinate number of pizzas.

And the student participants were remarkably comfortable in this environment. Given this generation’s familiarity with virtual-collaboration spaces, what are the odds of returning to a full-time, bricks-and-mortar engineering/manufacturing facility when social-distancing practices end?

As we all welcome the opportunity to reconvene with friends, family, workers and colleagues in person, the shine of that novelty may wear off quickly. The costs of travel and lodging, not to mention office space, are sure to be more heavily scrutinized when several proven virtual-collaboration tools are readily available as alternative means of connecting. Plus, there’s the reduction of time spent traveling, not to mention the savings on personal-hygiene products. Yes, a sizable number of men now sport beards as a result of spending a lot of time at home. Razor blades are expensive.

We’ll know soon enough where we’re headed. Kids grow up so fast.

ALSO READ: IIoT and remote connectivity let you keep your distance

About the author: Mike Bacidore
About the Author

Mike Bacidore | Editor in Chief

Mike Bacidore is chief editor of Control Design and has been an integral part of the Endeavor Business Media editorial team since 2007. Previously, he was editorial director at Hughes Communications and a portfolio manager of the human resources and labor law areas at Wolters Kluwer. Bacidore holds a BA from the University of Illinois and an MBA from Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. He is an award-winning columnist, earning multiple regional and national awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors. He may be reached at [email protected] 

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