Robots — and 1,500 tech-savvy athletes — invade Windsor

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Windsor Star/Doug Schmidt

Robots might one day rule the world, but for this week at least, they’ll just have to be satisfied with taking over Windsor.

Mechanical creations from as far away as Poland invade Windsor this week as 52 tech-savvy teams fight it out in Canada’s largest qualifier for the world’s most prestigious robotics competition.

The University of Windsor is the battleground for the April 6-9 Windsor Essex Great Lakes Regional FIRST Robotics Competition, with 1,500 students putting their robotic creations to the test and competing for openings at this year’s world championships in St. Louis.

The local FIRST Robotics meet is about more than just the kind of excitement and competitive pressure that the St. Denis Centre knows so well from the sporting world.

“We’ll be drawing companies, executives and potential investors to our area — this is building the talent pipeline for the knowledge economy,” said Irek Kusmierczyk of WEtech Alliance, which helped spearhead the effort locally.

“We expect Windsor-Essex FIRST Robotics will reach almost 1,000 kids this year,” said Larry Koscielski, chairman of the local chapter of what has become a worldwide program aimed at inspiring the next generation of engineers and innovators.

Koscielski said it’s as simple as encouraging a child to “cut a piece of steel, drill a hole, design something.” Working with machinery can be expensive, and more and more schools are turning away from such programs, “but as a society, it’s more expensive not to be involved in this,” said Koscielski.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics was created by American entrepreneur and inventor Dean Kamen who felt that, in a culture obsessed with sports and entertainment, the best way to get kids keen on science and technology was to make it fun and competitive.

FIRST Robotics school teams are recruited and formed in the fall — 18 local high school teams will be among the 52 at this week’s competition — learning teamwork and such skills as project and product management, machining, program coding and “investor relations” (fundraising).

On the same day in January, FIRST Robotics teams around the world learned what the 2016 challenge would be before being given six weeks to design, build and test a robot able to meet that challenge and conquer the competition.

This year’s competition requires each team to build a robot tough enough to overcome a series of obstacles — including a gate, moat, wall and drawbridge — hurl balls into openings high on a tower and then, as a final challenge, scale the wall of the tower. Opposition robots defend the castle and “spybots” from the other teams add further mayhem for the “drivers” controlling their robots via laptops and joysticks.

FIRST Robotics is all volunteer-driven and, Kusmierczyk said, a “remarkable” partnership with local companies keeps it funded and the teams supplied with industry mentors, financial support and technical know-how.

Koscielski, a senior technical and strategic adviser with CenterLine (Windsor) Ltd., said FIRST Robotics has become so important that applicants to the University of Waterloo’s engineering program are now automatically asked whether they’ve ever participated. It’s something CenterLine might look at in the future, he added.

CenterLine has been a big local sponsor, including supplying mentors for area teams and volunteers to the competitions. Windsor’s Valiant International has done the same and contributes $50,000 a year locally towards FIRST Robotics, while automaker FCA has donated over $2 million over the last decade.

Kusmierczyk’s father Richard, a retired specialist of industrial automation and management systems, was so impressed by what his son showed him at one such meet that he almost single-handedly got the program launched in his native Poland.

His hometown of Krasnik has the first FIRST Robotics team in Eastern and Central Europe, and Windsor will be its first competition.

The team — Spicegears — has 21 members flying in to the city, two of whom are here to cheer on the competitors but also to look at two-way economic development opportunities. Krasnik County is a world leader in raspberry production and is home to concentrated fruit-juice plants, a massive ball bearing factory and aerospace businesses.

“Irek is always telling me that education is the foundation of economic development … robotics can be used as a platform to expand our economy,” said the senior Kusmierczyk, who will accompany the visitors on tours of local plants and greenhouses and meetings with Essex County’s warden, Leamington’s mayor and economic development officials.

“Good is not good enough these days — you have to be excellent to be successful,” said Richard Kusmierczyk, whose Polish hometown team named its robot “Richard I.”

The pits and machine shops open at the St. Denis Centre on Thursday for practice matches. The competition, free and open to the public, gets serious all-day on Friday with final rounds are on Saturday from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m.

Irek Kusmierczyk, who is a city councillor, said the event, conservatively, should inject about a million dollars into the local economy. The city contributed about $1,000 in-kind for a Transit Windsor shuttle bus for an Adventure Bay social night.