The Independence School District has taken first place in a growing sport that is slightly different from the rest.

This particular sport requires dedication, mental focus and mechanical aptitude.

And it involves robots.

The First Bots of Independence robotics team are heading to the world robotics competition next month after placing first out of 58 teams in the Greater Kansas City FIRST Regional Robotics Competition last weekend at the MCC - Business and Technology Campus.

The FBI, which is comprised of Truman, Van Horn and William Chrisman high school students, is an extracurricular team that solely creates robots for competitions. The group that averages nearly 30 students each school year has been in existence for nine years and is sponsored by Truman industrial technology teacher Brad Drinkwater and district physics instructor Russell Clothier.

Each year FIRST, or For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, a STEM advocacy group, holds annual competitions where high school students from around the world can display their engineering prowess by constructing a robot that is capable of participating in a sport-like competition. There is a different kind of event or game at these annual events and this year's was "Aerial Assist," which can be described as a combination of basketball, soccer and even wrestling.

"These FIRST events are like baseball," says Drinkwater. "Your team is playing to win."

The Aerial Assist event has a playing field roughly the size of an elementary school gymnasium that is split into thirds. At each end, there are two forms of goals: a box-like goal on ground level and another one similar to a football field goal above. The two teams, consisting of three high school robotics teams each called alliances, are at the end of their opposing team's goal where they attempt to throw a medicine ball through the two types of goals by controlling them with joysticks handled by the "drivers" of the alliance. Each alliance has three robots that play the game.

And this is where Aerial Assist resembles basketball or soccer: The robots are allowed to catch or protect the medicine ball, as well as shoot it into the goals. For every ball that is assisted by the same team's robot, they receive bonus points after a successful goal. Opposing teams are allowed to steal the medicine ball, too, and each team has their own ball to score a goal.

But there is a slight twist to the competitive aspect of the game. FIRST emphasizes "gracious professionalism," according to Clothier. In other words, it requires teams and alliances to be cooperative and demonstrate sportsmanship, said Drinkwater.

"It's not like 'Battlebots' or UFC," says Drinkwater. "They (FIRST) want kids to work together."

For instance, both Clothier and Drinkwater said during one round at this year's regional competition, a team lost a chain to their robot that was essential to its overall function. Surprisingly an opposing team donated a substitute chain in order for them to continue competing. It's competition in the purest sense of the word, robotically speaking.

Things didn't look so well for FBI during the preliminary rounds at last weekend's competition, said the FBI sponsors. They said the team was placed "near last" at the beginning of the competition, where all teams are randomly chosen to compete in a 3-on-3 match before alliances are formed. As FBI was packing up their equipment and thinking defeat, an announcer yells "1723," FBI's designated number during the games, to advance to the next round.

"They (FBI) exploded," said Drinkwater.

The top 8 teams of the first round selected remaining teams to forge alliances.

"It's kind of like picking a team for kickball back in elementary school," Drinkwater said. The top 8 teams usually pick another team based on a strong attribute they previously demonstrated, whether shooting, passing, or blocking the medicine ball. FBI happened to have their robot able to catch the ball well, says Clothier. This choice made by a team in the top 8 later allowed FBI to earn a first place spot with an alliance consisting of Lee's Summit West High School and the Clear Creek, Texas, school district team.

And the game itself is not even the hard part.

Teams wanting to compete in these FIRST games have just six and a half weeks to devise and construct a robot, or an apparatus capable of participating.

"They (FIRST) don't count snow days or holidays, either," said Clothier.

Students work around the clock, before and after school, six days a week to construct a robot just in time for competition.

"We just keep testing it (the robot) until all problems are gone," said Drinkwater.

Plus there's so many variables, functionalities and overall thought put into these creations that it would make a layman's head spin.

Foremost, a robot has to be designed to perform a variety of functions in order to compete in a game, such as Aerial Assist. A robot has to throw, catch, pass a ball and even block other robots – all done remotely from a video game controller or computer joystick. Through trial and error, FBI develops programming code that operates a system of simple machines to perform these physical actions. Miniaturized air compressors, pistons, levers, pulleys, chassis, wheels, circuitry and any other imaginable electronic or mechanical part you can think of have to be in consideration for a robotics team.

"We have electrical, mechanical and motorized systems all within a robot," said Clothier. "There are a series of steps to take into account in just a six-and-a-half week span."

On top of that, Clothier says FIRST also places limits on how much a team spends on their robotic creation and sizes. He added that it probably takes an estimated 200 hours of labor to create a robot.

Next month FBI will travel to St. Louis, where it will compete with teams from more than 20 countries in the world competition. Clothier and Drinkwater say a team from Israel will be part of FBI's prearranged alliance.

"The team from Israel can't bring batteries, tools or carts with them on the airplane," said Clothier. "FBI is going provide their needed materials."

For more information about FIRST robotics, visit: