Disclaimer: I'm totally biased on this, as my brother's on the Hammond Robotics Team. Sponsored by the tiny Beatty Machine & Manufacturing Company, we've nevertheless been able to beat teams sponsored by GM, Motorola, NASA, etc... Our biggest "rivals" are probably WildStang (warning: AYBABTU content inside -- won't tell you where though ;-).
If you're thinking this is like Robot Wars or Battlebots, you've totally got the wrong idea. The FIRST (which stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics competitions have always been about constructive cooperation, not destruction. There's also another term that describes the spirit of the Competition: "Gracious professionalism".
This is the tenth year of the Competition, and this year Dean Kamen, founder of FIRST, genius, and all-around nice guy, decided to emphasize the cooperative aspects of the competition, partially in a response to Battlebots. Therefore, while in years past there was head-to-head competition among the robots during the matches, this year all the robots are on the same "team" while they're accomplishing the task.
This year, the game consists of a playing field divided into two halves with a pivoting ramp connecting the two halves of the field. Robots can also cross from one half to the other by going over or under an 18-inch high railing across the field. Should they go under, there's also a 2X4 separating the two halves of the field. There are several ways to score points in the game. One goal is to put small balls, which are located both in the driver's station at one end of the field and lined up at the opposite end of the field into two goals, one located in each half of the field, for one point each. Also, the robots can place large balls on top of the goals, which are 8 feet high, for ten points each. In addition, the alliance gets 10 points for each robot in the "end zone" at the opposite end of the field when the match ends.
Now for the fun stuff. If the alliance can balance the goals on the ramp, they double their score for each goal on the ramp in a balanced position. In addition, the alliance has 2 minutes to complete the task, but they get multipliers for finishing sooner. If they can do everything in less than 30 seconds, (HA!) they get triple their score. Less than 1 minute gets them 2.5 times the score, less than 1 1/2 minutes gets them double the score, and doing it in less than 1:30 gets them 1.5 times the score. Finally, in qualifying rounds only, each team (not alliance) with their colored large ball on a goal gets a 10% bonus.
What's particularly interesting is that even disabled robots can play, due to a movable platform known as the "stretcher". As an added incentive, if a team can place the stretcher with the robot on it in the end zone, they get 10 points for the robot and 10 points for the stretcher. Unfortunately, due to the lack of head to-head competition this year, robots just don't break down very often, meaning the stretcher hardly ever gets used. That and it's extremely difficult in general for a robot to haul another 150-pound robot on a stretcher over the ramp...
Today is actually the practice day, but apparently NASA Robotics didn't webcast them. However, they will be webcasting the entire competition, which starts April 6 at 9 AM Eastern and lasts to 5PM, then starts again April 7 at 9 AM and lasts through 4 PM. In addition, if you get NASA TV, you can save yourself the bandwidth and watch a decent picture ;-). If you're interested check it out, as well as the Chief Delphi Message Boards for news, rumors, etc. about the various teams.
In conclusion, I think that U.S. FIRST , despite our perhaps one of the best ways of getting our students to actually find out what it's like to do science and engineering as it's done in the Real World.