ATLANTA - Diablo whirs and rocks as it tries to climb a 6-inch stair onto the platform to score the game-winning points.
Purple balls bounce overhead, some bouncing off the machine as it struggles to wedge itself between the goal and a giant, yellow ball blocking its way.
Finally, the errant, yellow ball pops. Diablo is clumsily chucked onto the platform, where it extends its arm toward the 10-foot bar that will bring its team 50 points and certain victory - but it's too late.
The robot's team - the Red Devils of Rancocas Valley Regional High School in New Jersey - grimaces as the game-ending buzzer sounds.
One of Diablo's drivers releases the joystick in disgust. Even through the Plexiglas perimeters of the playing field, you can tell the team is disappointed that Diablo's opponent is already hanging from the bar.
Good thing Thursday was only practice.
About 7,000 high school students will butt brains today and Saturday at the Georgia Dome to see which of more than 300 student-designed robots will earn their teams a piece of the $4.5 million scholarship kitty.
The 13th annual Robotics Competition is sponsored by FIRST, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, which inventor Dean Kamen said he founded as a way to promote careers that society often overlooks.
Mr. Kamen, who holds more than 150 patents and invented the Segway Human Transporter and the insulin pump for diabetics, said society puts premiums on occupations in athletics and entertainment, when the real heroes are scientists and engineers.
"Kids want to do things they see adults doing and getting recognition for," he said. "We're taking the high school culture of sports and injecting into it something that has content."
To Mr. Kamen, it's about "developing the muscle that's hanging between your ears."
Those muscles were flexed Thursday for the competition's practice rounds, as high schoolers from across the nation tinkered with robots on pit row, then toted them on hand trucks to one of the five fields named for scientists such as Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton.
It might be coincidence that the fields sit atop the same floor that plays host to the SEC basketball championship, but the event is undoubtedly hoops-influenced.
Remote-controlled robots scurry around the 48-foot field to collect 13-inch rubber balls and deliver them to human team members who shoot them into fixed and moveable goals.
The teams earn extra points by capping the goals with 30-inch balls or by making their robots hang from a 10-foot bar at center court. Because the teams start with the same essential materials, many of the robots appear similar, but they use a variety of methods to score points.
Dave Lavery, NASA's program executive for solar system exploration, said the space administration is FIRST's biggest supporter, sponsoring 180 teams this year.
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