Java, Sun SPOT and the FIRST Robotics Competition
By roger on Apr 17, 2009
We on Project Sun SPOT are on a mission to drive the adoption of Java on small devices everywhere. We believe that with Sun SPOT devices we can help speed the onset of the Internet of Things by providing smart, connected devices and tools to developers, students, researchers and hobbyists. That is why we are so excited this week to announce the port of the Sun SPOT platform to the FIRST Robotics hardware (the National Instruments Compact RIO) and thereby making our software environment available to some of the best and brightest high school students. Yet another step toward Java everywhere. ...and this is a big step
The FIRST Robotics Competition is a truly inspired event originally created by Dean Kamen the inventor of the Segway. Each year tens of thousands of high school students compete with each other in head to head robotics competition. Its really a great event. I've attended the regional competition in San Jose several times now and what I've seen is nothing short of amazing. First, the robots are impressive. Its really hard to believe that high school students are able to put together such fantastic devices. These robots are usually quite large and heavy (the size of several of the students combined). They are designed to fulfill some interesting task such as retrieving large balls (several feet in diameter) and lifting them into a hoop six feet high. The teams go head-to-head with multiple robots on the playing field at one time. This year the challenge has the teams collecting some balls and trying to place them in a trailer that the opposing team is pulling behind their robot, all the time protecting their own trailer. This leads to the second amazing thing about the FIRST competition. It is great entertainment. At the regional championships in San Jose, I am just one of thousands of spectators watching the event. There is music and cheerleading and mascots and a general party atmosphere. It nearly brought a tear to my eye when I saw thousands of screaming fans watching a bunch of (and I use the term affectionately) nerds out there doing their thing. The competition is fierce with often intense rivalries between schools. While the spirit of competition is strong on the playing field, what is truly amazing is the attitude in the pits. As a walked around looking at the amazing creations, I often overheard competitors helping each other out, lending tools, advice, muscle power and general moral support. These kids get the idea that the most satisfying competition is the one where everyone is performing at their best. On the field they are competitors but in the pits they are on a mission together to change the world. These are our future technical leaders.
Right now I'm in Atlanta to attend the national competition at the GeorgiaDome... The freakin' GreorgiaDome! the same thing on an even larger scale. Its all very impressive. Its clearly a life experience for the kids lucky enough to compete here. Over the last couple of days I've gotten to meet some of these competitors. They are only in high school, but this competition has already given them real-world war stories that come from trying to make something complex come together under an aggressive time schedule. This is great, real-world experience.
Where does Sun SPOT fit in?
The folks at Worchester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), with some help from us, are porting the Squawk virtual Machine that underlies the Sun SPOT software stack to the controller used for this competition. This means that in next years competition the students will have the opportunity to program their robots in Java. It also mea
ns they'll have access to some of the libraries and features that we've built in Sun SPOTs. It seems that last year they did a survey of the students, and a huge percentage of them asked for Java. This makes sense since Java is the language they are tested on in their advanced placement exams. It just so happens that we have a great little open source Java environment at the core of the Sun SPOT system called the Squawk Virtual Machine. So last year, several students from WPI joined us for the summer to try porting the Squawk VM to the Compact RIO. It worked well. Now we are well on the way to making the platform available to the students so that they will have new tools to do their magic. You can learn more about FIRST and the Sun SPOT Java software here and you can get some background on the port itself here.
Welcome FIRST competitors to our little corner or the world of builders and makers. May you take your skills and competitive spirit and save the world for all of us!