Observer’s Notebook: Cable, Robotics, & USFIRST
ST. LOUIS–Every once in a while, technology translation sways human. This is one of those times. I’m just back from my first USFIRST championship, held here April 26-28. What a scene! Picture the Edward-Jones SuperDome, teeming with 10,000 high-energy teenagers, in tu-tus and capes and crazy hats. And their robots (2,500+ of them). And another 15,000 or so deafening fans.
FIRST spells “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.” Haven’t heard of it? I hadn’t either, until last year’s SCTE Cable-Tec Expo, when FIRST founder Dean Kamen spoke during the opening general session.
Within FIRST, Kamen is beloved and revered. In St. Louis, wearing his signature blue jeans and blue shirt, 25,000 people roared with excitement when he took the “Einstein” stage, then listened in rapt silence as he addressed them.
Here’s a short list of Kamen’s inventions: The Segway, the insulin pump, an all-terrain wheelchair, and a compressed air gizmo that could shoot a first responder to the top of a building.
Happily, cable is aiming its energy and engineering resources at FIRST, too. Among the opening ceremony speakers: Ellen East, EVP & chief communications officer at Time Warner Cable, and Sherita Ceasar, VP/national video deployment engineering for Comcast, who bestowed the first Media & Technology award to a very excited Team Panteras, #2283, from Mexico City.
Other cable muckety-mucks spied in the robot pits: Daniel Howard, CTO of the Society of Cable & Telecommunications Engineers; Mike LaJoie (CTO), Jim Braun (SVP/product management) and Matt Zelesko (SVP/web services & technology), from the Time Warner Cable engineering braintrust.
Time Warner dispatched a bucket truck (with a robot, “Pledgy,” in the bucket) and its “Connect One Million Minds” mission, which encourages young people to pledge their commitment to science, technology, engineering and math (which goes by “STEM” in the lingo.)
Comcast sponsored 50 robotics teams across the country this year, up from a dozen last year. Its technical ranks also served as mentors to each team.
Of the course of the weekend, I met ten teams — great kids, who said things like this: “We want to make sure everyone understands math and science, and how important it is to changing the world.” (–Megan Barrett, Team 4585)
And this: “I love the intuitiveness of engineering, and that you go from a piece of paper to something tangible within six or seven weeks,” said Jeremy Sayers, “Tough Techs” Team #151.
My personal favorite: “I’ve always liked the sciences, because everything makes sense, except the stuff that doesn’t make sense. And you can figure that out later,” said Stanley Umeweni, “Robolancers” Team #321.
Here’s what happens: Three big areas – designated “Einstein,” “Archimedes,” and “Newton” – run back-to-back, three-minute competitions amongst the robots. Individual teams are randomly grouped in alliances of three – three red, three blue.
Using the 120-pound robot they built after Kamen released this year’s challenge, in January, the red v. blue alliances compete to throw flying discs into targets, and to climb a metal pyramid. (Seeing a robot climb to the top was surprisingly exhilarating.!)
All the while, the stands regularly erupt in cheers, songs, and dances. Teenagers holler “robot!” when rolling their invention to and from matches. The smell of funnel cake and popcorn wafts along with WD-40 and engine grease.
What I like the most about FIRST (besides everything): Its highest award is for “Gracious Professionalism,” defined as follows: “Fierce competition and mutual gain are not separate notions. Gracious professionals learn and compete like crazy, but treat one another with respect and kindness in the process. They avoid treating anyone like losers. No chest thumping tough talk, but no sticky-sweet platitudes, either. Knowledge, competition and empathy are comfortably blended.”
Wouldn’t it be great if we all lived and worked that way? Wouldn’t it be great if we aligned to make a Cable FIRST mission? I’m in.
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.