Processing Your Payment

Please do not leave this page until complete. This can take a few moments.

March 17, 2021

Real estate boom is a bust for Maine's FIRST Robotics teams

Courtesy / Northern Force Members of the Northern Force FIRST Robotics team, which comprises students from Falmouth and Gorham high schools, working on this year's Infinite Recharge at Home competition.

The Northern Force FIRST Robotics team has had the pleasure of occupying some of the Portland area's sweetest retail and industrial space over the last several years.

There were the years spent in the Falmouth Shopping Center, first in a unit that had been occupied by Goodwill Industries, then in the former Lamey Wellehan shoe space.

"It was just empty space at the time," said John Kraljic, coach of the team that has about 40 members from Falmouth and Gorham high schools. "They were happy to let us use it."

After the shopping center was sold in 2018 and new tenants began to snatch up leases, the team moved on to the Dana Warp Mill in Westbrook.

The high-ceiling, wide-open former mill space with giant windows had a river view. "I loved it," Kraljic said. "I could've lived there."

But the Dana Warp Mill, owned by New Hampshire's Chinburg Properties, has since also become a hot spot for a diverse mix of makers and businesses and, with more than 90% of the mill occupied, the team had to move on.

Now Northern Force is a team without practice space, a chronic issue among the STEM-based high school team competition that relies heavily on the kindness of businesses for space, mentoring and other support. 

Ideally, the state's 20 registered teams would have at least 5,000 square feet with 10- to 12-foot-high ceilings, but would settle for less. The issue has become worse as the long years of big buildings with empty space that stretched across southern Maine after the Great Recession have ended. The vacancy rate for the type of space the teams are looking for in southern Maine was 2.4% at the beginning of this year, slightly from 1.8% in 2019, but, particularly when skyrocketing lease rates are taken into account, it's not a market favorable for the teams.

Kraljic said that real estate brokers and others who've helped the team have been "very nice," but the market is hot and the timing is bad.

two large pink containers with northern force written on them, in an industrial room
Courtesy / Northern Force
Northern Force FIRST Robotics team robots are packed up for a pre-pandemic competition. Space for practice and storage is always an issue for the state's FIRST Robotics teams.

The robot is 'just the vehicle'

FIRST Robotics, created by inventor Dean Kamen in 1992, is a team competition in which high school students, with the guidance of mentors from the business world, design, build, market and operate competitive robots. The teams run on a budget that can be $30,000 if they're successful and travel to district and international competitions. Much of the money comes from fundraising.

The benefits are wide-ranging, Kraljic and Steve Martin, FIRST Robotics Maine senior mentor, told Mainebiz this week.

FIRST stands for "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology," and when Kamen founded FIRST Robtics, with an assist from Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Woodie Flowers, he said he wanted kids to get as excited about science and technology as they do about the Super Bowl.

Team members learn critical-thinking skills, problem-solving, how to work together collaboratively, as well as a variety of STEM skills. Many students have found a career path through FIRST Robotics, and many businesses in Maine have found employees. At its most basic level, it gives kids a way to achieve and compete that some may not have found otherwise.

"It's a lot more than the robot," Kraljic said. "That's just a vehicle."

The problem is, doing all that that takes a lot of real estate.

There's the "practice field," where the team can test out it's robots before they enter competition, which takes place on a 27-by-54-foot arena space, and also make adjustments after they compete and discover where the robot falls short. 

But there are other space needs, too.

"Until we can find a practice field, we are in need of a storage location for the field elements," Kraljic said. "A space at least 16 feet in one direction and total area of 500 square feet should be large enough. Something larger would be nice to make it easier to put things in and out. A 5,000-square-foot area would be full," he said.

So, yeah, a lot of space. 

Courtesy / Northern Force
Northern Force, officially Team 172, competes at a post-season summer competition at South Portland High School in 2018. FIRST Robotics uses a lot of space, particularly to practice so the robots can compete against other teams. Northern Force's robot is the one in the middle, with the rubbish can on top of its stack of containers.

When they build it, it must run

The advantages to teams that have access to practice space are obvious. The initial stages of competition involve the robots traveling over the field, picking up game elements, stacking them and placing them in targets, so the students must program a robot to be able to work in the required area.

"It's difficult, if not impossible, to program a robot to travel over a 27-by-25 half field when you only have a 10-foot by 8-foot or less practice area," Martin said. "Driving from one end of the field to the other through the field elements is a critical skill only developed through on-field practice. Being able to shoot game elements into their targets from any spot on the field also requires practice on a full field."

He said that teams with access to better practice areas perform better in their initial matches at competitions.

The teams are used to collaborating, and, with most of the state's teams in southern Maine, space is often shared. The teams are used to hopping around. Northern Force, officially known as Team 172, has been lucky in the past with the Falmouth Shopping Center and Dana Warp Mill space. They, and other teams, have also uses a South Portland elementary school gym during February vacations. Spruce Mountain High School, in Jay, has also made its gym available to teams over the years.

Teams are also used to setting up in classrooms or gyms, then breaking everything down after practice; testing robot functions in school hallways and more. Teams have learned to work with challenges like posts in the middle of the space and sprinkler heads getting in the way. 

Martin said that the students work hard to raise money to support the programs, but the money, which would be significant, to rent space is mostly beyond their reach. GoFAR, a 5013c associated with Northern Forc, bought a field perimeter that other teams can use as well, but it needs a space to live. GoFAR has also been key in negotiating leases over the last several years, he said.

Robotics Institute of Maine, a nonprofit housed at and administered by the Manufacturers Association of Maine, supports Maine teams but doesn't have the funding to support practice fields, Martin said.

No team has found an ideal situation. "Most teams are working out of schools with limited space," he said. Some have a dedicated build space — a place where the robot can be built. But once it's built, it needs a place to run. "No teams have a dedicated space able to hold the 27-foot by 54-foot full field size. Some teams have access to gym or other space, but can't leave a field set up for the months of build and competition season."

Nearly 30 years of growth

The season runs from January through April, with competition usually starting at the beginning of March and lasting two months. There are also post-season summer competitions and more. This year, competition is limited with some virtual events, because of the pandemic, which gives the space search some breathing room. But soon, the space shortage will be an issue again.

Kraljic, a teacher at Falmouth High School, has been involved since 2003. He's retiring next year, but his drive to find the practice space hasn't slowed.

Martin, an engineer who's retired from Fairchild Semiconductor, got involved with FIRST Robotics in 1999 when his oldest daughter joined South Portland High School's Team 58, which was established in 1996 as Maine's first team. He's been involved ever since. 

FIRST Robotics has changed a lot over the years. In the early days, competition was in a 16-by-16 foot space, the robots are more complex, too. They're about 150 pounds now, 5 feet high and need a perimeter of 10 feet. Sensors, industrial motors and programming are used. 

The first championship was in a New Hampshire High School gym. Now regional, national and two yearly international championships are held in arenas across the country. In 2020, FIRST had more than 3,500 teams and ore than $80 million in scholarships is available to FIRST students. 

And it's not just for high school kids anymore, either. FIRST now starts with 5-year-olds, with FIRST Discover for pre-K and first grade, Explore for second through fourth grade, and the FIRST LEGO League for grades four to eight.

Martin said that there has been a lot of support from businesses and the community, and FIRST is grateful for it. But one thing that holds it back from areas of northern and western Maine are lack of mentors and other adult support. He gets it — people have jobs and families and obligations. 

"We have kids who are interested," Martin said, but the area still doesn't have the resources for a team. All over the state, more business support from small businesses that do things like machining and 3D printing would help. 

"But the key is trying to get the practice space," he said.

Sign up for Enews


Order a PDF