One of the robots created by the FIRST Robotics team that is mentored by Zebra engineers
By Tom Boehm | April 26, 2019

FIRST Steps: An Inside Look at the STEM Initiative

How the high school robotics program is leveraging Zebra technologies, mentors to inspire future engineers

Last month, Zebra served as the presenting co-sponsor of the SBPLI Long Island FIRST® Regional Competitions in New York. Employees from all facets of our business attended, and we honored with the presence of a special guest: Dart™, one of our ultra-wideband RFID location solutions.

A picture of the Zebra DART hub
A photo of the Zebra DART ultra wideband tag

Zebra has been using locationing technology to tag and track athletes in the football arena for five years now, providing coaches with actionable insights and fans with real-time stats. We’ve also been helping ranchers track livestock; retailers track merchandise in their stores; the healthcare industry track medication; and supply chain organizations track nearly every type of finished good on the market today. With 10 years of experience and over 1 million RFID tags in use, we have a pretty good idea of what could be done with our tech. But we’re always searching for new applications.

So, we started thinking, “What if?”

What if we could give students who excel in STEM the same energizing experience as those who play football? What if the audience was as engaged at a robotics competition as they are in a football stadium?

As we have experienced, data can transform an athletic event from something relatively subjective into something palpable and concrete.

Think about a tight horse race. Immediately after, on racetracks and in betting parlors all over the world, fists are clenched around wagers and programs, waiting. Then, a photo finish reveals the winner – the leading horse's nose only centimeters ahead of the runner-up.

It happens in the Olympics, too. Take swimmer Michael Phelps in 2008, for example. He secured gold with the tip of his finger – his opponent off by a mere hundredth of a second, less than a finger’s-length behind.

But data does more than confirm what transpired at the finish line. It gives us accurate insight into how long a practice can last before the players are so fatigued that it’s no longer beneficial and the height a skater needs to jump to nail her triple axel.

In other words, data can inform – and improve – almost any aspect of any competition.

We realized that if we enabled FIRST Robotics teams to integrate RFID technologies into their engineering program and competition component, they would be able to confirm the time it takes their robot to get the cargo to the cargo hold – or how congested areas of the field may be, a conclusion they can draw after viewing heatmaps of movement from a match. This technology is the ultimate empowerment tool for teams trying to scout their opponents and decide with whom they would be best-served to form alliances.

The impact of our idea doesn’t stop there, though. Once the data that our technology produces during a competition is projected up on the screen, event attendees start to benefit from the expanded fan experience too. (Just as football fans benefit from the NFL’s Next Gen Stats® generated by RFID technology.) This data is how non-technical members of the audience get an idea of what’s going on; how well-meaning loved ones new to the STEM world know when to cheer; and how prospective mentors decide which team is a good fit for their support.

Post-match, FIRST teams can examine the information these technologies gathered about kinetic energy, acceleration, orientation and robot velocity to extract valuable insights that allow them to improve the mechanics of their robots.

Building a robot from scratch is one thing. But getting it to do what you want and fine-tuning until it’s optimal? That’s everything.

The mission of FIRST is to “inspire young people to be science and technology leaders and innovators, by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering, and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership.”

Whether through technology or volunteers, Zebra is proud to support that mission.

Inside Zebra Nation,
Tom Boehm
Tom Boehm

Tom Boehm has over 35 years of engineering experience spanning several industries, and he has been with Zebra for over 25 of those years. In his current role as a software engineer in Zebra’s Data Capture Solutions (DCS) Custom Products group, Mr. Boehm responds to customer requests for unique and sellable new features from Zebra’s scanner product lines.

Prior to this position, he spent many years as a software engineer in Zebra’s DCS standard product group and briefly supported Zebra’s Enterprise Mobile Computing (EMC) group. He also spent about a decade teaching at the university level.

Mr. Boehm holds a BS in Chemical Engineering from The Cooper Union and an MS in Computer Science from the Polytechnic Institute of NY.

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