Do you love building robots? Do you love robots fighting one another even more? Welcome to the VEX Robotics Competition! You are tasked with building a robot to play through a game against other robots to compete to show whose robot comes out on top. Sponsored by Google, Mathworks, NASA, TESLA, and branches of the U.S. military, the competition is a fun, yet prestigious, way to showcase your robotic engineering ability.
What is the Vex Robotics Competition?
The VEX Robotics Competition is an annual international robotics competition that challenges students to design, program, and build robots to compete in a rotating crop of challenges, activities, and quests. VEX is open to students from elementary to high school, providing a fun platform for any young engineer to showcase their engineering, problem-solving, teamwork, and critical thinking skills.
The VEX Robotics Competition was founded in 2007 by Innovation First International and currently run by the Robotics Education & Competition Foundation. Since its inception, the VEX has gained significant recognition and prestige within the educational and robotics communities, garnering sponsors from companies like Google, Tesla, and Northrop Grumman. This past year, more than 11,500 teams from 40 countries played in over 750 tournaments. Participation in VEX trains students to design experiments, be creative in their solution to a problem, be strategic in their thought-processes, and develop communication, innovation, and quick-thinking abilities, all in a fun environment.
VEX Robotics Competition teams compete at regional, national, and international levels, through a series of fun battles and competitions until one qualifies for the World Championship. It is widely regarded as an extremely high achievement to compete, while simultaneously fostering a sense of camaraderie among participants, who all love being creative and building robots, and celebrating excellence in young robotic engineers.
Is the Vex Robotics Competition Prestigious?
VEX is internationally recognized as a very prestigious competition, for the rigor and talent that competitors must have to compete at a top level. Alongside this academic aspect, the competition is sponsored by famous and equally prestigious companies and organizations, such as all branches of the U.S. military, Texas Instruments, Tesla, NASA, Google, and more, as well as engineering/tech universities, such as Worcester Polytechnic and Rose-Hulman. These organizations and schools all recognize the honor it is to compete in VEX at a high level, and often scout future interns, employees, and service-person from these competitions. Alumni have been known to attend top universities, and then go on to intern and work at Northrop Grumman, Amazon, Tesla, and more. Some schools even provide exclusive scholarships to VEX participants! Undoubtedly, VEX Robotics is a highly prestigious competition.
Who is Eligible to Participate?
VEX Robotics Competitions typically begin at grades 4 and above, with competitions stratified by age, but the main participants are high school students. Thus, all it takes to participate is a school signed up with the Robotics Education & Competition Foundation and students may begin to participate! The Foundation provides immense amounts of support for anyone starting a new team, with purchasable robot building kits for every age group’s requirements, a guide to start a new team and compete at a high level, and multiple grants available to try and help newly formed teams.
Timeline and Structure of Vex Robotics Competition
The competition takes place through a series of local and smaller competitions until a team reaches the World Championships.
Local competitions are held throughout the competitive year at various locations throughout the United States. Competitions can be found at this link. These competitions will likely have different formats, timings, and structures, but the competition game itself is dictated on a national level, as teams must all build a robot to complete the same task. The game does change year by year, but for 2023, here was the competition for high school teams.
Each round is two minutes long, with a 15 second autonomous period and a 1:45 minute controlled driving period. There are two teams, red and blue, with each team consisting of two participants each. The teams go head to head with each other to compete over the allocation of 60 balls, onto their Offensive Zone and into a goal. There are also tubes and tunnels that can lead robots to sit at different elevations. Teams achieve points by placing balls onto their offensive zone, scoring goals, having a more successful autonomous period, and being at a higher elevation than other robots at the end of a match. Check out this link for the full explanation.
Teams are able to qualify for World Championships through high placements and awards at accredited local competitions or participation in the previous year’s World Championships. The World Championships occurs in various locations in late April to early May of a competition year. Worlds consists of many scrimmages, practice runs, qualifying matches, competition matches, playoffs, and then awards. The competition takes place over 6-8 days, thus can be a large undertaking to compete in. There is no cash incentive for victory, but teams automatically qualify for next year’s World Championships, higher likelihood of receiving additional grants and funding, the prestige of being able to even participate in such an exclusive competition, and an additional validation of one’s ability for college applications and interviews.
8 Things You Need to Know to Win
1. You must deeply understand the rules for the year’s game
Before you build your robot or even think about competing, you must be able to understand, analyze, and essentially memorize the rules and conditions of the game. This will allow you to develop a clear strategy for how you want to score points and create a unique niche for your robot to get ahead of others. For example, with this year’s game, there is a careful balance between being able to score into the opponent’s goal, having as many balls in possession on your side as possible, and getting to the highest height at the end of the game – you cannot do all three at once, so be sure to understand the scoring of the game to develop a clear strategy for you to win.
2. You must develop an effective team composition and strategy
VEX Robotics is a deeply collaborative competition, as you will not be able to construct a grand robot on your own. Find team members that you know you will work well with, and have strengths outside of your own. Begin the design and construction process as soon as possible, figuring out which supplies you need and also what new things you need to learn to maximize success, such as a new necessary feature in CAD. Establish a timeline of your year ahead, with goals and checkpoints to strive for, and divide tasks among team members to ensure efficient progress. This timeline will be your organization, and be sure to regularly check back in to make sure you are at or ahead of schedule, and readjust as necessary.
3. You must focus on developing a strong drivetrain
The foundation of a great robot is its ability to be mobile. Spend a lot of time researching and choosing appropriate wheels, motors, and gearing systems. Throughout your design, testing, and optimization processes, change aspects of your drivetrain to ensure your robot’s stability, speed, and maneuverability.
4. You must train yourself in programming
After developing a strong foundation to your robot, if you want your robot to act how you really want it to, you must be able to program it to your heart’s desire. Invest time in learning and practicing programming languages relevant to your robot's control system. The primary languages you can use and have resources for can be found here. Alongside programming, be sure to familiarize yourself with AutoCAD or any of the other CAD services, as this allows you to design precise pieces of equipment for your robot, but can be very complex and intricate to learn.
5. You must develop a method for experimentation
You and your team must be able to continuously iterate and improve your robot design based on testing and feedback, thus being able to design different experiments to test your robot on any aspect you need, collect the right and accurate results, and figure out how to improve your robot based on those results. However, there is a balance for conducting experiments to gather results to improve, but also wearing out your equipment with repetitive use.
6. You must optimize your robot’s ability to score during the autonomous round
While just lasting for a brief period during the competition, winning the autonomous round can give you a significant number of points. Thus, be sure to dedicate time in developing, testing, and improving your autonomous programs, based on the programming ability you have also developed. There are many resources available online for the autonomous robot, from MathWorks, VEX, and other websites.
7. You must form alliances with other competitive teams
A unique aspect of VEX Robotics is that, yes, you are competing against every other team in the competition, but you must also work with another competitive team, as each game is 2 vs. 2, rather than two robots from the same team. Thus, before competing, it may be worth it to find other local teams around you and meet up with them. Strategize how you both can maximize your chances at victory, as more than one team can qualify for the World Championships at each competition.
8. You must hold consistent practices or scrimmages with game rules
While building, iterating, and planning is all great, you must practice the game itself to ensure that your team and your robot are up to par with what the competition needs. The game boards can be bought on the VEX Robotics website, allowing you to mimic competition games to ensure you have the highest quality practices. You can either organize scrimmage matches and/or participate in local events to gain experience and improve your team's coordination and reaction times. Learning from your experimentation skills, you can then evaluate your robot’s performance and see how you can improve from there.
Conducting advanced research is another great way to build new skills, take charge and expose yourself to new perspectives. It can also boost your profile for scholarships and competitions! If you want an opportunity to build your own independent project and research paper, then consider applying to the Lumiere Research Scholar Program. Last year over 2100 students applied for about 500 spots in the program. You can find the application form here.
Aaron Zheng is a sophomore at Harvard University, studying Bioengineering. He is passionate about biotechnology, business development, and aiding students to get to college, regardless of background. In his spare time, he looks to read, journal, and explore the world.