Although the cancelation of school sports and extracurricular activities is far from the biggest problem posed by COVID-19, many high school seniors still feel a sense of loss from missing these rite-of-passage events. In mid-March, the FIRST® organization canceled its two FIRST Robotics Championship competitions in Houston and Detroit, and suspended the 2020 season.

But this season isn’t over yet.

FIRST, the global non-profit organization that offers a suite of robotics competitions for students in grades PreK-12, has partnered with PTC for a virtual design competition that challenges teams to design a robot that can solve a current world problem. Examples would include a robot that delivers emergency food and supplies to people living in remote areas, or a robot that cleans up pollution from the water and air.

Participants in the six-week “Robots to the Rescue” competition will use PTC’s Onshape product development platform that enables teams to remotely work together online on the same CAD model at the same time from any computer, tablet or phone. As a pure Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) platform, there is no software installation required and no IT infrastructure to administer and maintain, allowing teams to get started quickly and to easily collaborate, innovate, and have fun. Used professionally worldwide by thousands of product developers, Onshape is free for students and educators.

FIRST teams around the world are invited to the “Robots to the Rescue” virtual design competition where they solve a current world problem with their robotics skills.

“The typical high school senior looks forward to the Prom, to Senior Night, to their senior prank. For senior FIRST Robotics students, they were also looking forward to their last regional competition or their last championship run,” says FRC mentor Marcus Bernstein, a sophomore Product Design major at Drexel University. “This is the time when team leaders can show what they’ve learned the past few years. A lot of teams are struggling with morale, struggling with what to do now because they can’t compete.”

“That’s the void that ‘Robots to the Rescue’ can fill right now,” he adds. “The freshmen, sophomores and juniors realize it’s still their time to prepare for next season, to prepare to be the next leaders.”

“Robots to the Rescue” is aimed at both FIRST® Tech Challenge and FIRST® Robotics Competition teams. In the first 10 days of registration, 282 FIRST teams have signed up so far. There’s still plenty of time to sign up and compete, as the final submission deadline is May 15.

Onshape is Built for Team Collaboration

Drexel University student Marcus Bernstein, who has been designing robots since 7th grade, first became interested in engineering in elementary school when he participated in the FIRST LEGO League. (Courtesy photo.)

Bernstein, the leader of Philadelphia’s PTC Onshape User Group, is also a FIRST Robotics Competition mentor for Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School (Team 7599 AlphaBlue), and the Milken Community Schools (Team 1836 MilkenKnights) in Los Angeles. He is a 2018 Milken graduate and is now advising his former team in the “Robots to the Rescue” challenge.

“In the 2017 season, my junior year, one of the first things I did when I became team captain was switch the team over from SOLIDWORKS to Onshape,” Bernstein says. “I had first heard about Onshape while I was doing an internship designing headphones and speakers for a small tech startup and was really frustrated by some of the other CAD platforms.”

“At the time, I did a CAD challenge from my phone and had an easier time using Onshape than I ever did with SOLIDWORKS. I started using it professionally at work and fell in love pretty quickly.”

Bernstein says that Onshape’s accessibility across all devices and its built-in collaboration tools make it a natural fit for schools – inside and outside the classroom.

“The fact that Onshape is web-based and doesn’t require any installation is huge,” says Bernstein. “I can run it on Mac or Windows, my cell phone or a Chromebook or iPad. The biggest way that high school students start to get involved in robotics competitions is they start to play around with things at home. When students can only access CAD on their school computers, that’s a really big barrier.”

Onshape’s real-time collaboration tools enable multiple students to simultaneously work together on the same design, seeing each other’s changes as they happen – and allow mentors to remotely observe team progress and provide instant feedback.

“For designing a competitive 150-pound robot over the course of a six-week build season, collaboration is key. It’s just not feasible for one student to do it all alone and be competitive at a high level,” Bernstein says. “Onshape makes it easy for advisers to watch, guide and give constructive criticism to students so they can learn faster and iterate better.”

Onshape’s “Robots to the Rescue” design contest is meant to capture the camaraderie and competitive spirit of FIRST Robotics Competition events.(Photo courtesy of the MilkenKnights.)

FIRST Founder Dean Kamen Responds to COVID-19

Dean Kamen, founder of FIRST and president of DEKA Research & Development Corporation (Source:

The founder of FIRST, Dean Kamen, recently told the New Hampshire Union Leader that he has been hearing from high school robotics clubs around the world about their volunteer efforts during the COVID-19 crisis. He mentioned a Michigan FIRST team designing and building their own ventilator, and another FIRST team in Israel that built 500 ventilators.

Kamen said some of the students are planning to share their designs as open-source projects for FIRST teams around the world.

“If every one of the teams makes a couple ventilators, it will substantially increase the total number of ventilators available,” he said. “...The whole FIRST community is used to getting an impossible problem statement, an incredibly short amount of time to deliver a working solution, and to do it in a way that while their robots are competing, the community is working together and sharing.”

Kamen himself is using the global resources of his DEKA Research and Development Corporation to secure mass shipments of protective medical gear to New Hampshire hospitals.

According to the Union Leader, Kamen is also talking to the U.S Department of Health and Human Services about mass distribution of DEKA’s Slingshot portable water purifier to ensure there is enough sterile water for hospitals.

“If we can make significant quantities of sterile solution in distributed locations around the country and around the world, it can help with another shortage that could become more critical than the masks shortage,” he said. “We are doubling down right now on figuring out how to make that machine capable of delivering sterile water and IV solution as quickly as possible.”