Back in September of ‘21 we brought you a review of an inspiring documentary called Zero Gravity. Zero Gravity followed a diverse group of middle-school students from San Jose, CA, who competed in a nationwide tournament to code satellites aboard the International Space Station.
Well, as it transpires, that’s far from the only competition of this sort, in fact there’s one that is much, much larger. FIRST Robotics Competition attempts to bring together science and technology with all the razzmatazz of sport; mascots, team names, dance moves…
With strict rules in place and just six weeks, teams of students from around the world are presented with a problem that will involve them building industrial-sized robots to solve.
They play against each other, as well as with each other in alliances, to score the most points in order to progress from regionals to the season finale, the FIRST Championship.
This year FIRST have teamed up with Disney and LucasFilm to have a Star Wars themed problem to solve. The teams shoot large foam balls into various slots and are awarded points for each ball that goes through. Finally, they must climb and balance on a tilting frame.
Whilst each team is made-up of high-school children they each have at least a couple of mentors to aid them with the design and build of their robots. The teams also pay a hefty entry fee for the competition which sees them provided with an initial ‘kit of parts’, which isn’t enough to build the final solution, but sets them on their way.
Some teams don’t have much of a budget, or a team. With just a few members and not even a room to work in, building their robot in a corridor, some teams, such as the Terawatts team, elect to focus on just the climbing aspect or just the shooting aspect, relying on being selected in an alliance to go all the way and win.
Meanwhile other teams, such as the Vitruvian team, have all the kit you could possibly imagine and a large influx of students wishing to be part of their team. Luckily, they do let other teams come in and help them wherever they can.
This latter point is, according to FIRST founder Dean Kamen, the main point of the whole thing. It’s not about the robots or the competition, it’s about bringing people together, teaching them the importance of collaboration, getting on with each other and overcoming obstacles.
On this basis the documentary, directed by Gillian Jacobs, in her feature-length documentary directorial debut, is very inspiring and moving. The story of a Japanese exchange student who, on her return to Japan, decided to start her own team is very inspirational, particularly when you hear her say that she didn’t see any female engineers, so it never occurred to her that she could give it a go.
This is just one of the many inspirational stories you hear throughout the documentary before, sadly, the Championship ultimately succumbs to the COVID-19 pandemic, as many things did and continue to. But what happens next is even more moving, powerful and inspirational.
More Than Robots is a wonderful documentary, hugely inspiring and a must if you have young children who need to see someone in a position they perhaps didn’t believe they could achieve.
Any criticism I have is more of the FIRST Championship itself than the documentary. For instance, I’d like to see the competition prioritise, and award, those teams who took an ecological approach to the solution, perhaps building their robot out of recycled and/or upcycled material?
I’m also very much taken aback by the cost of entering the Championship in the first place. That, to me, would seem to be a major stumbling block for schools in more deprived areas.
However, none of this detracts from the documentary itself, which is wonderfully made, wonderfully inspirational and a delight to see.
18th March 2022
THE QUICK SELL
Four teams of teenagers from around the world prepare for the 2020 First Robotics Competition, but in a year like no other, the kids learn that there is more to the competition than just robots.
CAST & CREW