My favorite Thanksgiving tradition (yes, even more than eating WAY too much food) is watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on TV. I love the floats and big balloons, but even more I can’t wait to see the Broadway performances and marching bands.
Admittedly, I don’t always set my alarm for the parade. It starts at 8 a.m. in Chicago, and I like my sleep too. But this year I’m setting my alarm. I want to make sure I catch the very beginning of the parade, when five award-winning teams from this year’s FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) will run their robots through their paces to cut the starting ribbon and shoot confetti along the parade route.
FRC is a high school competition organized by FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), aimed at inspiring young people's interest and participation in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. At the beginning of each competition season, teams receive a kit made up of motors, batteries, a control system, a PC, and a mix of automation components—but no instructions. Working with adult mentors, students have six weeks to design, build, program and test their robots to meet the season’s engineering challenge.
Each year has a different theme and set of tasks that the student-built robots must complete. For this year’s Ultimate Ascent theme, robots competed for points by shooting Frisbees into various slots and then climbing a structure. Check out this video of Texas Torque, a team based in The Woodlands, Texas, competing in regionals. Its robot, SONIC, shows impressive Frisbee-throwing skills.
Now the students who designed SONIC have modified the robot to cut the ribbon to signal the official start of the 87th Annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The other four teams taking part in the parade are The Holy Cows from San Diego; S.P.A.M. from Stuart, Fla.; The Bomb Squad from Mountain Home, Ark.; and Raider Robotix from North Brunswick, N.J. Following the ribbon cutting, those robots will shoot confetti along the parade route.
Having coached a FIRST Lego League team of fourth-graders, I know how quickly the six weeks of competition preparation can go by. And that’s working with Lego-based robots. I can’t imagine all the hard work and dedication that these high schoolers have gone through to be so successful with full-sized, 150-pound robots.
I hear that Winter Storm Boreas, which is bearing down on the East Coast with high winds and freezing temperatures, threatens to ground the giant balloons that are such a beloved part of the annual parade. That seems a shame, but I understand the dangers. But if I can still see those kids who are so excited about engineering the best robots they can for the task at hand, I’ll be happy.