Creating the Next Generation of Technology Leaders

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) just kicked off the 2009 FIRST Robotics Championship in Atlanta Georgia.  If you aren’t aware of what the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) is, check out this cool video.  I first became aware of FRC when I was visiting a key customer and partner, National Instruments, who asked me if Wind River would be interested in partnering with them to sponsor the 2009 FRC.  Since this would consume time and energy and there was no direct business attached to the event, I was initially dubious.  But once I understood the positive impact of a “yes” decision, the decision was easy.

My decision was based on the FIRST’s charter, which is:

“Our mission is to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders, 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.”

For years, since the tech meltdown, enrollment in engineering and computer science programs in the U.S. has been declining.  Apparently, the students believed that a career in investment banking and financial engineering would be more lucrative.  And it was.  For awhile.  A recent New York Times article entitled “Computer Science Programs Make a Comeback in Enrollment”, points out that we seem to be turning a corner in computer science enrollment.  I realized that contributing to FRC would help to turn around the declining interest in science and engineering.  This is ultimately why I said “yes”.   Not only would this be only good for our country, but would eventually be good for the embedded software industry as well.  For more detail about Wind River’s contribution to FRC, read this news release.

The computer powering the 2009 FRC robot kit is the National Instruments CompactRIO industrial control and data acquisition system.  The CompactRIO is based on VxWorks (as are other products from National Instruments).  Unlike the 8-bit controller of previous FRC competitions, the 32-bit CPU in the CompactRIO running the FRC robotic libraries on VxWorks delivers to the students a much more capable robot.  The mentor-led student teams are able to program the controller either through National Instruments’ LabVIEW or directly in C using the Eclipse-based Wind River Workbench development environment.  As it turns out, some teams used LabVIEW exclusively, some used Wind River Workbench, and some used both.  In any case, I’m pleased to see that the robots performed well through the regional competitions and now in the championships.

It makes me proud to see the success of these teams.  It also makes me proud to be part of Wind River.  Not only because of our support for FRC and FIRST’s mission, but also because this is yet another demonstration of how the VxWorks technology is being successfully applied in industrial applications.  I look forward to running into some of these young men and women in the future and hearing how FRC inspired them to be technology leaders.

BTW, I have two young sons, and recently purchased for them a LEGO MINDSTORMS, which allows children to build LEGO robots and program the motors, actuators, and sensors through LabVIEW.  Perhaps I’ll get them involved in a FIRST LEGO League competition, and eventually in an FRC event where I’ll help them build VxWorks applications.