Java for FIRST Robotics Competition

I spent the end of last week in Atlanta at the finals for the FIRST Robotics Competition. This is a competition where high school students build robots that perform some task. This year's task looked an awful lot like building a robotic basketball player. I was there partly because it's just a cool event; but mostly because we were announcing (along with the folks from FIRST and from the Robotics lab at WPI) that beginning with next years event, students could do their programming in Java. The controller that all teams use is the Compact RIO from National Instruments. It's a nice enough unit, but the C programming environment is brutal: when bugs cause crashes, the most you'll get is a register dump with (maybe) a listing of the assembly code around the crash site. There's no protection between the OS and the application, so the whole OS goes down when the application crashes. This is a tough place for professionals to work, let alone high school students. As a consequence, the amount of programming that is done is pretty minimal. So the robots are mostly mechanical engineering, with very little robotic ability to operate autonomously. We were demoing the new Java environment where NetBeans could be used to remotely (over the wireless link) debug Java programs live inside the robot: stack traces, breakpoints, looking at variables, ... all the cool NetBeans deployment and debugging tools totally transform the development experience.

I'm really sad just like to see the sun lay down its long tail to the surface of the sea in the sunday evening.

Posted by Shingo on April 20, 2009 at 02:54 AM PDT #

Well, it's not so much the Java language as the environment, since robots have been running C in Linux forever.

Posted by guest on April 20, 2009 at 03:53 AM PDT #

My wife uses the Lego robots with her students. It's great fun and they are wonderful tools for learning.

To transition the older kids to Java, I introduced them to RoboCode... a cool Java based "robot battle" environment. Starting with this, I think migrating from a "virtual" robot world to robots in the "real" world would be a snap.

Fun stuff!

Posted by John Reynolds on April 21, 2009 at 12:59 AM PDT #

I was actually in the FIRST Robotics competition years ago (1998-2000). It was a great experience. I feel almost envious that these kids can start using Java in their build process. When I was in the program, there wasn't much programming involved; most of the programming involved soldering wires and making sure all the servos and motors were probably connected.

It's awesome to see Java being available to these kids. Amazing!

Posted by Joe on April 21, 2009 at 02:02 AM PDT #

A very cool robotics choice is the use of LEGO Mindstorms NXT ( Students can build a robot, take it apart, and reconfigure it (reassembly using the same parts -- no power tools required, other than creative minds!) FIRST facilitates this annually through the FIRST Lego League (FLL), geared for students 9 to 14 years old (my 7, 9 and 11 year-old kids all dig it.)
Lego Mindstorms NXT: A 32-bit microprocessor, an impressive array of sensors (touch, sound, light, ultrasonic...) Bluetooth, audio, and awesome servo motors...
You can flash Lejos, a tiny JVM for the NXT, onto your brick and use the NXJ API to get object-oriented, with preemptive threading, recursion, multithreading, exceptions, Java types, etc... That's smart!! And a whole lot of fun!!

Posted by Evan Goff on April 21, 2009 at 06:39 AM PDT #

Evan Goff,
Your LEGO Mindstorms link was afflicted by the trailing parenthesis above...
Try this link instead:

FIRST Lego League is a wonderful opportunity for teams of students to work together as robot builders, programmers and problem solvers.
It's a great opportunity to exercise brains, have lots of fun, and practice GP (FLL folks know what I'm saying...)
Is this currently available in St. Louis? For what ages?
Is it affiliated somehow with FIRST? LEGO?

Posted by St. Louis LEGO Robotics Enthusiast on April 21, 2009 at 08:17 AM PDT #

St. Louis LEGO Robotics Enthusiast,
I coached a FIRST LEGO LEAGUE team of amazing 5th grade girls this year, "The Tree Frog Team" -- simply awesome. We worked hard, many Saturdays over 4 months, and had fun competing among 50 teams in the St. Louis FLL tournament.
What an experience!
An opportunity to encourage the (VERY MUCH NEEDED) math and science heroines and heroes of tomorrow!!!
FLL is a unique, fun approach to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. When I saw my team solving challenges (robotic missions), testing their robot, refactoring their design and their programs... I knew we were right on track, doing some really cool stuff.
Look for more information soon re:

Posted by Evan Goff on April 21, 2009 at 08:52 AM PDT #


What will happen to our beloved development platform after Oracle?? What a terrible day for Sun, what a terrible day for all java/sun fans...

Posted by Brazilian Java Developer on April 23, 2009 at 03:22 AM PDT #

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