ECG Robotics FRC Team, Triple Strange #1533, after winning their second district event last season.
When a high school junior in North Carolina was searching for a server to host websites for a competitive robotics program, CenturyLink was happy to provide one.
We first heard from Aidan Hunt, who takes college courses through an early entry program at Guilford College, when he contacted us in late May as a representative of the school’s FIRST® Robotics club, ECG Robotics, which has about 100 members who attend schools in and around Greensboro and Guilford County. FIRST Robotics (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is an international 501(c)3 nonprofit organization created to inspire K-12 students to pursue studies and careers in science and technology.
ECG Robotics has five teams that compete in two levels of “sport of the mind,” in which teams build robots to perform predetermined tasks, and have qualified for the World Championship in Houston, Texas for the past three seasons. Hunt’s team, Triple Strange, won one of eight divisions and every pre-championship event last year.
Along with the technical talent needed to build their robots, a team’s success also hinges on its ability to collect and analyze data from competitions. What FIRST teams needed, Hunt told us, was a place to house innovative tools for “scouting” in real-time at events. Marketing is another key requirement for teams, and having a professional website is critical to recruiting sponsors and new members.
When Hunt contacted us, he said some teams didn’t have websites or make use of their school websites, so it was difficult for them to market team accomplishments and recruit sponsors. Many also used paper systems or Google Forms to track statistics from matches to make data-driven decisions in making three-team alliances used in playoffs. For documents, file storage, and email, teams typically use SaaS programs that don’t offer students the ability to learn cloud and server administration skills. They needed an easy way to get started deploying to the cloud without contracts, credit cards, or complicated setup.
As described on the FIRST website, FIRST teams aren’t strangers to student-led and student-designed work. It’s how they build their robots each year:
Under strict rules, limited resources, and the guidance of volunteer mentors including engineers, teachers, business professionals, parents, alumni and more, teams of 25+ students build and program robots to perform challenging tasks against a field of competitors. They must also raise funds, design a team “brand,” hone teamwork skills, and perform community outreach. In addition to learning valuable STEM and life skills, participants are eligible to apply for $80 million in college scholarships.
ECG Robotics planned to start a shared hosting service for FIRST teams and community members to host websites, source code, mailing lists, and web apps for scouting, tracking statistics, and more. Giving the FIRST community a central place to find the technical resources to work in the cloud will empower them to continue serving their schools and communities, create an opportunity for students to get real world experience designing and administering a Linux server and popular web applications, and develop their own apps on the platform.
The early results point to another win for FIRST Robotics teams nationwide. Hunt said he contacted more than 30 cloud companies, and only CenturyLink responded with support — a sponsorship of $4,400 in cloud services to host their server. It’s up and hosting five websites for FIRST Robotics teams across the country. Meanwhile, ECG Robotics students have had the chance to practice server administration and technical communications skills using tools such as Docker and WordPress that are ubiquitous in industry.
We’ll be checking with Hunt and the teams using the system during the year to see what they’re doing with websites and applications on their server, and how they’re faring in their competitions. We look forward to sharing the journey with you.
FIRST®, FIRST® Robotics Competition, and FIRST® Tech Challenge, are registered trademarks of FIRST® (www.firstinspires.org) which is not overseeing, involved with, or responsible for this activity, product, or service.