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2013 FIRST Robotics Competition Kicks Off

samzenpus posted about 2 years ago | from the family-fun dept.

Education 64

theodp writes "Saturday, the 2013 FIRST Robotics Competition kicked off, and — much like the Pinewood Derby — mentoring by adult engineers there doesn't hurt one's chances of winning. So, any advice for 'ordinary' high schools going up against the likes of FIRST Robotics Teams sponsored and mentored by NASA? FIRST Robotics Team 254's Lab at NASA Ames Research Center, for instance, includes 'an 80% size practice field as well as a small machine shop, workspace, computer lab and meeting space.' Not surprisingly, Team 254 won the 2011 FIRST Championship." We took our camera to the Michigan FRC championships last year, and had a great time.

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Craig Charles (2)

xushi (740195) | about 2 years ago | (#42502945)

Get Craig Charles to present and maybe it'll be more of a hit.. Heck I'd watch it then :)

WOW (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42502947)

I'm happy for you.

Yeah but... (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42503221)

Can you fuck the robot yet?
No? Wake us up when you can.

Re:Yeah but... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42503667)

Parent poster is what happens when you listen to the modern auto-tuned-to-hell pop-crap that is so popular today. You have lustuous desires for robots and household appliances. Go back to humping your toaster or vacuum.

Why not robotics competitions elsewhere? (2)

DavidClarkeHR (2769805) | about 2 years ago | (#42503473)

Any robotics competition is interesting - but why don't we hear more about them on slashdot? The last mention of a competition was last year ... Skills Canada [skillsontario.com] has a similar, yearly competition and has included robotics as a category for quite some time (Up here, it's been going on since 1995).

In fact, it looks like there are 26 different competitions [wikipedia.org] that students can enter, per year ... though the geographic restrictions may limit individual participation.

Re:Why not robotics competitions elsewhere? (2)

3nails4aFalseProphet (248128) | about 2 years ago | (#42503983)

We don't hear about other competitions because...
A. They weren't founded by recognizable name like Dean Kamen
B. They don't have over 50,000 international participants
C. They don't hand out $16 million in scholarships
D. They haven't been around for 20+ years
E. They aren't based in the USA, which is where the majority of Slashdot's readership is located

I'm not saying we shouldn't have coverage of other robotics competitions, I'm just saying there are reasons we hear about this one in particular.

Re:Why not robotics competitions elsewhere? (1)

rmelton (165795) | about 2 years ago | (#42507079)

I think the http://firstlegoleague.org/ [firstlegoleague.org] robotics for younger kids is a great program. I have helped judge the local event for the past 5 years and have seen first hand the enthusiasm and creativity in the kids. I think that the younger you can get them interested science/technology/building/creating the better!

Re:Why not robotics competitions elsewhere? (1)

ediron2 (246908) | about 2 years ago | (#42509785)

Second year of mentoring a team, same impression. The science/engineering attractive power of this low-budget league amazes me.

Re:Why not robotics competitions elsewhere? (1)

Firehed (942385) | about 2 years ago | (#42509403)

FIRST is international, but most of the teams are US-based. Every regional competition I've attended has teams from Canada, Mexico, and at least one other continent - often two or three (Australia, Europe, South America)

Serious advice (5, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42503515)

The first piece of advice: The point of the contest isn't to win, it's to have fun and learn stuff. Yes, just like in the pinewood derby, having dad build the thing means you're more likely to win the trophy; it also means you're less likely to win and have fun... So make sure that your mentors are mentoring, not doing the work for you.

The second piece of advice: NASA isn't the only place that has smart engineers. There are plenty of small engineering companies in the world; take a look around and find one! Even pretty small towns are likely to have some civil engineers or mechanical engineers...

Re:Serious advice (1, Troll)

DavidClarkeHR (2769805) | about 2 years ago | (#42503631)

The second piece of advice: NASA isn't the only place that has smart engineers. There are plenty of small engineering companies in the world; take a look around and find one! Even pretty small towns are likely to have some civil engineers or mechanical engineers...

Third piece of advice: I know lots of engineers. I only know a few smart ones. Figure out who those smart ones are.

Re:Serious advice (1)

Spiked_Three (626260) | about 2 years ago | (#42507903)

Sorry you got modded a troll, but I know you are correct.

Most people think FIRST is about encouraging science and education, after all that is what the tell the sheep. But in reality it is about Northrop-Grumman avoiding hiring 12 engineers to find the 1 smartest. By using things like FIRST to find the 1 best, they can avoid the overhead.

FIRST has nothing to do with Robots, it is electrical and mechanical engineering. Using Robot in the name is just another trick to get the public to go along with it.

I got very interested in FIRST at one time. I found that it is a money centered cheaters club. The mentors do the design, they do the majority of the software work, they fund expensive shop tools, then they enter kids who are just there to be social. The personalities I encountered were/are disgusting. The mentors are in it for themselves.

Sadly, Northrop-Grumman does identify the one kid who is smart, and the other 29 parental borrowed college funded grads will go jobless, but the banks made record profits so its ok.

Re:Serious advice (1)

Firehed (942385) | about 2 years ago | (#42509619)

You were a part of a team with qualities that wasn't in line with FIRST, if that's an accurate description of your experience.

While it's definitely true that there are teams where the mentors do all of the hard work (I've met some, and they tend to be looked down upon by the rest of the community), most of the teams actually have mentors being mentors and let the students run the show. But it's important to have volunteers that will police each other about doing too much - having an actual teacher as a mentor helps immensely here. Out of the at least two hundred teams I've worked with in varying capacities, only two or three were mentor-dominated, and that includes those I met at the world championships.

When I was mentoring a team, we had to often remind each other to back off a bit because as an adult it's really easy to accidentally dominate the process - especially when it's a fun and rewarding one. It's pretty impressive what the students can create when the mentors keep their roles confined to safety police, knowledge-base, and the occasional reality check ("no, you can't add flamethrowers", "cool idea, but it violates the laws of physics", "I like where you're going with that, but we tried something similar five years ago and it ended up being a disaster... go ahead and prototype it but don't get too attached in case it doesn't work out").

Re:Serious advice (1)

ediron2 (246908) | about 2 years ago | (#42509891)

An old boy scout leader friend once called himself a ponderosa pine: a big tree, offering shelter and somewhere to lean. As a type-A nerd, it's one of my toughest lessons, to step back and make the kids do all the work. To ask good leading questions, or explain an engineering concept succinctly in a tangent. To keep them from hurting themselves. To praise good hacker insights, or doggedness.

Re:Serious advice (1)

ediron2 (246908) | about 2 years ago | (#42510111)

Think I replied to you elsewhere, said you didn't know shit. From here, I can see it ain't that you're ignorant... you've just been burned. My apologies.

I completely get where you're coming from. Any championship starts to get burdened with side values/costs, whether it's olympics or these sorts of academic leagues or even amateur sports. It's the golden rule, in reverse: Money corrupts, more money corrupts things more. Maybe I'm lucky: my kids are so far down the damn well that merely qualifying for state boggled our minds and will expand their horizons immensely. Some of these kids come from entire families that have never set foot on a college campus or seen knowledge work as a career possibility. I don't want them to strive to almost win and then get nuked by the money-centered cheaters club. That'd sting bitterly, and again my condolences -- most of us have this happen occasionally. But that's not the only possible takeaway. I just want my kids to see more career options than their parents saw.

BTW, you're still wrong about FIRST w/r/t FIRST Lego: entirely preprogrammed minibots. The bots may seem lame, but what were you expecting for 5th and 6th grade kids?

Re:Serious advice (2)

3nails4aFalseProphet (248128) | about 2 years ago | (#42503861)

Some more serious advice:
1. Remember you're competing as an alliance, not a single team. I didn't see anything mentioning if the alliances are created by participants, will be predetermined before the competition or randomly selected at the time of the event. Synergy between your bot and those of your alliance members could overcome opponents who build and function as individual bots instead of alliance members.
2. Don't do the same thing as everybody else. You've got to get crazy in your ideas. If you want the chance of a spectacular success, accept the risk of a spectacular failure.
3. You may be able to combine defense with offense. Check rules for any limitations on size/shape/blocking opponent goals. The first thing that popped into my head was a bot that deploys a huge clear sail/net in front of one or more goals, funneling attempted shots down into itself, which it then fires at the opposing goal. It wouldn't need to be very mobile, but would need resistance to opponent attempts to shove it out of position.
4. Playtest the hell out of whatever you build, in as many different scenarios as possible. If the rules don't forbid swapping components based on opponent and/or alliance members for a particular match, use that to your advantage.

Re:Serious advice (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42506147)

During preliminary competition the three team alliances are generated randomly and change with every match. (You'll typically be paired with just about every other team at least once). At the end of the preliminaries, the top eight teams get to choose two other teams to be part of their alliance for the rest of the tournament (best two out of three elimination rounds eventually leading to a final match). So in all 24 teams make it into the elimination rounds.

You want to win as many matches as possible during preliminaries of course, in order to get a high ranking and hopefully make it into that top eight. But failing that you also want to demonstrate to the top ranked teams that your robot would be a valuable partner in any potential alliance. For instance a middle of the pack robot that is terrible at scoring but good at defense could be a very attractive choice for a top team's alliance.

Re:Serious advice (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42505235)


My team won Nationals at Epcot.

An engineer from our sponsor designed and constructed our robot. Our team of 25 had 2 valuable people: the drivers. The remainder of us were cheerleaders. The victory felt hollow. I learned very little. Other than a bullet on my resume, I gained little from the experience.

Re:Serious advice (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42506873)

Work more with the engineer. Our team has a program where a few dedicated engineers work on design throughout the year. Students (generally get only 8-10 really dedicated ones) show up and the engineers divvy up the work and provide guidance.

What makes this work is when you get enough student manpower to take over design and construction. Then, the engineers get to a point where they:
A) Run out of work and end up in a management-type role and keep the students on task, or
B) Work on concepts and get them developed to the point where it can be handed off to a student.

The main thing I've noticed (from being a former student in the program and now a current engineer mentor) is that students need to approach the engineer with interest. I have rarely met an engineer who refuses to let the students do anything. Most of them geek out and start showing them stuff that the classroom doesn't teach.

If the students don't show any interest in doing more, the engineers don't know that the students want to learn/do more. This was a persistent problem that our team had until we created the year-round group where there is an easy way to show interest and to quickly find a project to work on.

Re:Serious advice (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42510729)

I agree. I used to be a part of this and lived in a small town with the local GE branch. We almost took the trophy home 2 years in a row with nothing but a classroom and an out of date machine shop.

Sponsors are a big deal (4, Interesting)

CharlieG (34950) | about 2 years ago | (#42503595)

Making sponsor relationships is a big deal, as their time does not count towards your budget. Expect to work long hours. Find a mech eng to help.
Most important thing? Let he kids do the work and have fun. Our mentor team probably could have had a robot built already, or close (4 pro programmers, a ME, a machinist, an EE) but we let the kids design and build, we teach software design, how to use the shop, and act as a safety team.

Dropping the kit of parts to the school thisAM
Go Fe Maidens 2265 and SciBorgs 1155

Re:Sponsors are a big deal (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42506429)

Good luck ... the rookies I'm mentoring got their KoP Saturday. And it only took about 15 tries the mentors to convince the kids that brainstorming needed to wait until AFTER you READ ALL THE RULES. :)

Re:Sponsors are a big deal (1)

CharlieG (34950) | about 2 years ago | (#42512649)

Good luck to you guys too. I was the KoP transport person. We were at kickoff, and got our KoP, but the school building was closed till this AM

RC car or "real" robot or ? (2)

vlm (69642) | about 2 years ago | (#42503751)

I glanced at the PR stuff and was pleased to see its not a stereotypical "robot" = "homemade RC car with weapons destroys another homemade RC car with weapons". Apparently something about getting disks into goals, I assume as close as they can get to calling it Hockey without violating trademarks and patents. Does anyone know if its basically "homemade RC cars that play hockey" or are the robots autonomous? An autonomous robot competition would be more complicated, but much more interesting. The only autonomous competition I can remember is that "drive across the desert" thing from years back. Not that there's anything wrong with homemade RC cars.

Re:RC car or "real" robot or ? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42503775)

I glanced at the PR stuff and was pleased to see its not a stereotypical "robot" = "homemade RC car with weapons destroys another homemade RC car with weapons". Apparently something about getting disks into goals, I assume as close as they can get to calling it Hockey without violating trademarks and patents. Does anyone know if its basically "homemade RC cars that play hockey" or are the robots autonomous? An autonomous robot competition would be more complicated, but much more interesting. The only autonomous competition I can remember is that "drive across the desert" thing from years back. Not that there's anything wrong with homemade RC cars.

That's what I was wondering. Everytime I see someone say robot, it's actually a remote control vehicle with an arm or something. Real robots aren't remotely controlled.

Re:RC car or "real" robot or ? (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42503941)

I have not looked at the format for this year but I know in years past it is an element of both. There was about a 30 second period at the beginning of the competition that the robots had to navigate autonomously after which there was about ~2 minutes of time in which the "robots" were controlled as RC cars. Generally competing at a high level requires the robot to perform well in the autonomous section and then during the RC section knowing what tasks to control and what tasks to run autonomously is important (ie position is easy to control remotely, but if you have to shoot a basketball you should have the aiming done autonomously).

Re:RC car or "real" robot or ? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42506919)

There is an autonomous portion of each match as well.

The main reason for this is that it is tough for many high schools to make something fully automated. Engineering resources aren't always available, so you see a lot of teams with "robots" made of PVC pipes and plywood. The autonomous section is where you can really dominate in points, but the general competition is kept remotely controlled to make it more accessible to teams who lack funding, engineering support, facilities, or a combination of the three.

Re:RC car or "real" robot or ? (1)

DrEasy (559739) | about 2 years ago | (#42503913)

There's also RoboCup [robocup.org] : autonomous robots playing soccer.

Re:RC car or "real" robot or ? (1)

vlm (69642) | about 2 years ago | (#42507619)

Now that's real robotics! That I would attend, or sponsor, or mentor, or at least like to read about. One minor problem is the only three events on the web page for 2013 are in Germany, Netherlands, and Iran. More to come, hopefully.

Re:RC car or "real" robot or ? (1)

hamjudo (64140) | about 2 years ago | (#42503965)

The first 15 seconds of each match are autonomous and the goals are worth twice as much. The remaining 2 minutes of each match are teleoperated.

Re:RC car or "real" robot or ? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42503987)

Yes and no. The "games" begin in autonomous mode, where the robots are uncontrolled for a period of time (20-30 seconds or so, if I recall), and then a student driver takes over control for the rest of the match.

Re:RC car or "real" robot or ? (3, Informative)

3nails4aFalseProphet (248128) | about 2 years ago | (#42504029)

The youtube video in the linked story explains the game pretty well. It starts as an autonomous competition, with double points for any goals during that time. Then teams are allowed to take control. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=itHNW2OFr4Y [youtube.com]

Re:RC car or "real" robot or ? (3, Informative)

RPI Geek (640282) | about 2 years ago | (#42504047)

This year the goal is to throw flying discs (frisbees) through goals of different heights (both in the sense of how high off the ground they are and how tall they are), and to get bonus points (awarded after the 2:15 match time runs out) by climbing a pyramid of bars (kind of like monkey bars on a playground, but a pyramid). The robots can weigh as much as 120#. Click here [youtube.com] or look on YouTube for Ultimate Ascent.

On the topic of autonomous robots, the first 15 seconds of each match ARE autonomous! The thing is that each team (of high schoolers) is given 6 weeks from learning the rules of the game to design, build, write code for, and test their robot. Asking a team (which could have as few as 3 or 4 mentors and 5 high schoolers) to do that, and make the robot autonomous, is just asking too much. Even the bigger teams (I mentor for Team 250 - The Dynamos - and I am one of about 20 mentors and there are a few dozen students) have a hard enough time making the robot functional.

Lastly, it is very much against the spirit of FIRST to intentionally damage the other teams' robot; doing so will get you penalized and maybe even disqualified from the match. That doesn't mean no pushing and shoving though - playing defense is a valid strategy, but the game rules are designed to prevent damaging the other bots. In fact there are two term that are used widely in FIRST, gracious professionalism and coopertition. It is a common sight at competitions to see a team with a broken robot (either smoke pouring out or it just doesn't work) and people from other teams giving them parts, advice, and labor to get them back on the field.

Re:RC car or "real" robot or ? (1)

Ksevio (865461) | about 2 years ago | (#42506353)

Continuing on the subject of autonomy - It's an area that basically requires miany more sensors/inputs (can bring up the costs quite a bit) and pushes a lot more time into the software, most of which can only be done after the robot is fully functional. If the challenge was the same every year (like playing soccer), then it would be reasonable to have fully autonomous or longer autonomous sessions, but as it is, the engineering/design of the robot is more interesting, so no one wants to see the super clever robot design flailing for 2 minutes around because a ball knocked a sensor out of place.

Re:RC car or "real" robot or ? (1)

vlm (69642) | about 2 years ago | (#42507505)

It's an area that basically requires miany more sensors/inputs

Well now autonomy is a tricky thing. For a car analogy you can design a unlimited F1 like competition where only world class engineering companies can compete with millions of bucks, lets say bipedal team of hydraulic/pneumatic robots playing soccer. You can also design a competition where kids, or not much more advanced than kids, can actually compete, like maybe a tabletop maze runner, maybe a somewhat simplified air-hockey table rig, maybe a "fire fighting robot" with a squirt gun trying to hit a candle. Robot tag? A "big" smart autonomous maze runner would be kind of interesting, held on a golf course or parking lot.

Its like saying you can't have a programming competition because developing the linux kernel took too long to replicate in a competition. Yet... corewars...

Another argument is just call a spade a spade and call it a "Homemade radio controlled car competition". For a standard /. car analogy, they don't call the drag racing strip in Kentucky "The Kentucky Derby" despite not having any horses and being run by cars. Although I have to admit it would be kind of hilarious to see a biological equine horse race a homemade (electric? radio controlled?) car on a drag strip.

Re:RC car or "real" robot or ? (1)

Ksevio (865461) | about 2 years ago | (#42509531)

It's probably in part due to Dean Kamen's influence - the man who made the segway and other mobility devices. The competition pushes more of the mechanical portion of robotics rather than the software. There are other competitions that focus on other areas, but I'm sure the fun of getting to drive around a robot attracts a lot of people (personally I prefer seeing a creation handle itself). The younger FIRST with legos does a bit more autonomous actions (though even there it was usually "drive forwards until mechanical action takes place, drive backwards")

Re:RC car or "real" robot or ? (-1, Flamebait)

Spiked_Three (626260) | about 2 years ago | (#42507777)

Please, like costs are any burden. You people spend tons of money to win, whatever it takes.

Reality is 15 seconds of autonomous is a lie. For the reasons you just mentioned, any team that scores a single point during autonomous has had the work done by the 'mentors'.

Maybe if you would require more autonomous, and approach it without cheating, then the kids would learn something about robotics.

These things are remote controlled cars, crappy ones at that.

Re:RC car or "real" robot or ? (1)

ediron2 (246908) | about 2 years ago | (#42509723)

Check my prior comment. FIRST Lego is: limited # of sensors/motors, fully autonomous, and designed by kids (5th and 6th graders). Hit the 'net, do some research, and you'll see just how full of s**t your imagined description of the FIRST leagues is.

Better yet, attend a competition (the whole day... listen to the opening/closing ceremonies, sit in on presentations). You'll see they're pushing for engineering prowess MORE than for robotics solutions. As for 'learning something about robotics', even when a system is remotely-controlled, servo feedback and calibration become a big damn deal. When things break, or during co-op rounds, kids have to know what they're doing. These kids learn WHY robotics is tough, and begin to create compensation techniques, even if they don't master robotics enough to do full-autonomy on new hardware on a strange challenge in a few weeks on a few-thousand-dollar budget... or, in my kids' case, on a few-hundred-dollar budget.

Yes, having good sponsors, team members or parents is crucial to some aspects of the competitions. But coming from mentoring a huge team (nobody is turned away) in a disadvantaged neighborhood, I'll personally attest that your post couldn't be more wrong. Or more insulting.

Re:RC car or "real" robot or ? (1)

Spiked_Three (626260) | about 2 years ago | (#42516111)

Yeah, I've been there. Started to get involved but quickly became disgusted at the politics. I saw shop equipment in the pits that cost more than my home for the winning team, co-incidence? It's all about money. There may be some good intentioned mentors out there, you may be one I have no idea, but I guarantee the top level teams do not have them.

I'm glad it is insulting, it is meant to be. Organizations like FIRST are driving America's education the wrong way.

Re:RC car or "real" robot or ? (1)

Spiked_Three (626260) | about 2 years ago | (#42566185)

Just a follow up - to be REAL specific. check out this FLL team http://first3574.org/index.php [first3574.org] Click the Space Elevator link. Notice the Picture? That is a copyrighted picture of mine, used without permission. What do you think that FLL team is teaching the kids? I was copied on an email telling that guy that I took pictures and that he needed to ask me before he used them. Did he? hell no. My hate for FLL has gotten stronger. I think I will help teach that team the legal system and how it can ruin your day.

Re:RC car or "real" robot or ? (1)

CharlieG (34950) | about 2 years ago | (#42512721)

Yep, we cracked a wheel last year, and another team handed us one. At hte same time, we were handing a motor to another team.

Our all Girls team (we have 2)
http://www.drivelikeagirlfilm.com/ [drivelikeagirlfilm.com]

Re:RC car or "real" robot or ? (1)

dkleinsc (563838) | about 2 years ago | (#42504155)

FIRST has never been about weaponry, but rather rewards good engineering and creative problem-solving. Its goal has always been to encourage kids to get excited about technology and engineering.

The guy who started it, Dean Kamen, is a prolific inventor (including wheelchairs that can climb stairs, the Segway PT, some medical devices, water purification pumps, and is now working on solar panel improvements), but has had a significant interest in science education throughout his career. Before he started FIRST, he spent a lot of his time starting a small science museum [see-sciencecenter.org] near where his company is based.

Re:RC car or "real" robot or ? (0)

vlm (69642) | about 2 years ago | (#42507571)

FIRST has never been about weaponry

OK OK in my defense I used to subscribe to "Servo" magazine in the 00s and back then "robot competition" was almost exclusively homemade weaponized RC cars with the exception of once (ONCE) I heard about some firefighting robot competition. So either FIRST began well after that era of "psuedo-robotics", or the scene overall has completely changed to pacifism, or Servo was intentionally not covering FIRST or whatever. I'm trying to report what I heard in the past with my ear to the ground, not rewrite history into claiming Kamen must have been a weaponized drone mfgr.

Re:RC car or "real" robot or ? (1)

ediron2 (246908) | about 2 years ago | (#42509415)

You're reporting what you remembered from your ear to the ground? WTF, doesn't google and wikipedia work where you are?! Did you attend a single FIRST contest? What about the junior or Lego FIRST leagues?

Thanks for admitting you were doing the usual slashdot thing of just spouting off random unsubstantiated b.s., but please... your rant is what is being discussed. You somewhat pwned the conversation with your imagined warrior killer-bot claims.

I'm still reading the thread, but haven't seen mention of FIRST's younger levels yet. And from experience, I can vouch that FIRST Lego are diametrically opposite what you imagine:

The earliest tiers of FIRST are done using Lego. The tier I'm involved in (with a large team of 5th and sixth grade kids) is fully autonomous, involves 'flip switch', 'move object', 'select/gather and return to base' type goals, has a ridiculously-short 3-minute round for nearly a dozen goals (forces prioritiziation), and that part of the competition is sandwiched in with challenges geared toward demonstrating teamwork, public presentation, and learning about and solving some problems geared to some contemporary theme (this year is challenges old people/seniors face, last year was food safety). All of this is wrapped up with a loud, steady mantra of 'graceful professionalism'. I'm mentoring kids in a very-poor neighborhood whose school is working to become a small-city science/tech magnet school (my 2nd year), and was dumbstruck when our team qualified for state (barely; 12th out of 40+ teams in our regional competition).

The senior-high-school FIRST competitors often are judges and support staff for our competitions. This year's emcee was a geeky/charismatic local high-school math-olympics coach. Last year, I saw one of the high-school FIRST team's robots: they had a dozen interesting bits of good-prototyping best practices I never got close to being taught until college: an adjustable chassis (L-channel with holes, like giant erector set parts), deep-cycle batteries and tires and servo-driven motors, a data bus and carefully-built wiring looms for each mechanism, design for field-service/redundancy/spares, onboard and remote diagnostic frameworks, feedback mechanisms, etc. They used an inverted wifi home router (a modded wrt54g or similar) on the robot to talk to their laptop for data/communicatiojn. The chassis was bigger and weighed more than I expected (about 75kg, a meter per side, more than a meter tall). I forget the goal: collect and bin many balls on the playfield, maybe? Gather, scoop, lift, dump, plus motion and detection.

Full disclosure: IANA First representative/spokesperson. For the record, I loved battlebots. My team's kids geek out when they see 'em on youtube. But I can completely see how shifting to combat-competition would drown out or destroy attention on many of the fundamentals being sought here. There's competition in FIRST, because adversarial competition is motivational/educational crack. It's that once you introduce combative sorts of competition, it seems damn hard to not lose ALL of the attention on the other harder-to-teach ideals FIRST is after.

Re:RC car or "real" robot or ? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42504529)

I have a few large problems with FIRST, and this is one of them:

It's a glorified RC car competition. The 30 second autonomy is largely ignored by teams that don't have an engineering firm backing them. This is because, quite simply, 95% of the competition is won by the RC portion and the mechanical design of the robot. Little emphasis is placed on success in robotic autonomy. I remember going to a regional kickoff seminar for FIRST. At the intro programming seminar, 95% of the people in attendance were adults, rather than the kids who were supposed to be learning the material. New teams are told to outright ignore the autonomy aspect as it is "too hard".

Second is barrier to entry. You're talking approximately $10k investment in parts and raw materials. This is before tools or machine shop, to build a single RC car. The ONLY teams that succeed are backed by large engineering firms who drop the equivalent of $100K in engineering man hours into "helping the kids build and program the robot". By helping, I mean dominating the design and build process. Given the soapbox derby examples, you can tell what is the product of motivated high-school students or the product of an engineering firm. It is especially sad when said engineering companies show off "their" First robotics trophy case (I have seen this at three separate large engineering companies).

I fail to understand why this competition dominates over much more reasonably priced table-top robotics. They require less supervision (from a safety perspective) and allow the individual to experiment, and (gasp!) fail without catastrophic consequences, and, on occasion succeed. You can teach the fundamentals of programming, mechanical design, and allow for the same RC stuff that first provides. You can have 20 fairly advanced tabletop robots, parts, and equipment for the $6k/year cost of the FIRST required parts kit. I know I learned a lot more this way when I was in grade school, and it was one of the reasons I became an engineer. You look at things like the Trinity College Firefighting Competition, and wonder why they have fallen by the wayside.

Full Disclosure: I helped mentor a non-backed team that barely had enough money to buy the "required" parts, and was one of four or five engineers who were related to students on the team. I was very strict about the mentoring aspect. I was not going to write any code for them, or design and build the bot. But I would offer design examples and advice and tried to teach programming concepts.Realistically, it's impossible to have high school students do the build or to do the mechanical design by themselves, which, defeats the purpose as a learning tool. If the students aren't doing at least 70-80% of the activity, it doesn't make sense as a "student activity".

Re:RC car or "real" robot or ? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42518787)

There are lots of "autonomous" robotics contests out there - someone else earlier linked to a Wikipedia page with a long list of robotics contests and a number of them are autonomous. One that I personally like in particular is Botball (www.botball.org). This contest started in 1997 and was initially intended to only be for high schools, however they have had middle schools competing ever since that first year. The robots in Botball have always been autonomous (programmed in C and now C, C++, or Java) and the students are the only ones allowed in the competition area on "game day" (to include the "pit" where students fix and reprogram their robots - so they really need to know how to do this stuff themselves and I can honestly say that most of them (including the middle school students) do). The Botball teams are given 7-8 weeks typically to build and program their robots using a kit of components that all the teams get at the start of their regional (so all teams have the same electronics, controllers, servos, motors, sensors, lego technics, metal parts, etc). The kits also include two controllers so that the students can build TWO autonomous robots that run at the same time. At the start of each match the students have to turn on and position their robots in the starting area (typically 15"x24"x15" or so) and then the students must step away and once both teams are ready the judges turn on a set of lights which signals that the game has started. The robots must use light sensors to "see" this signal and then they can move about the game area scoring points and they must stop themselves after 120 seconds. The students can not send any commands or interact with their robot(s) in any way during that 120 seconds (so the robots have to be running code to perform all the tasks they complete). It truely is a great program and one where the students that stick with it really do learn a lot while also having fun.

With regards to the "autonomy" of the robots in Botball. Many just do "dead reckoning" to complete a set of preprogrammed manuevers, however a lot of them do use some sensors (bump, light, color recognition) and some have more adaptive behaviors (if a certain task fails they retry and/or move on to another goal). The kits include a color camera that can be used to do "blob tracking" (early on they used the cmucam, but switched over in recent years to using a lower cost webcam). It is a great program and I recommend that you check out their webpage and/or search on youtube for videos of Botball robots in action.

LabView still? (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42503917)

Argh. They're still using LabView with a "National Instruments cRIO". http://wpilib.screenstepslive.com/s/3120/m/8559/l/90113-2013-frc-control-system-hardware-overview
Can someone explain why they're not using a more open source platform?

Re:LabView still? (1)

trout007 (975317) | about 2 years ago | (#42504031)

Is there an open source platform that will contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars in hardware, software, and money to help stage the event?

Re:LabView still? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42504125)

You can use labview, java, C++, or python this year. Sure you still have to use NI's CompactRIO, but at least you don't have to use labview.

"Coopertition" and "Gracious Professionalism" (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42504171)

"So, any advice for 'ordinary' high schools going up against the likes of FIRST Robotics Teams sponsored and mentored by NASA?"

You need to think outside the normal rules of competition. Get to know the fundamentals behind the two trademarked FIRST terms are "Coopertition" and "Gracious Professionalism." There are always rookie teams going up against 22-year veteran teams.Try to work with, not compete against, the teams with significantly more resources than you have. First encourages teams to help each other out. It's not only about winning, it's about doing your best when the other teams are at theie very best.

I'm a mentor for a team in it's 7th year. It started with a few high school students building a "robot" in a garage with little adult mentor help. Now the team has grown to nearly 100 students and we are still struggling for resources. We have no lab, school teachers, meeting spaces or funding from the district. Our next goal is to have the school provide us a room and pay for buses to get our team to the competitions.

Re:"Coopertition" and "Gracious Professionalism" (2)

kaizendojo (956951) | about 2 years ago | (#42504325)

I'd have to agree; back a few years ago when I was working at a private school, we started a team in cooperation with a school for special needs students. We won the Judges award for Extraordinary Partnership first year in, and second year placed in the regionals. You have to really look at what FIRST is all about, and play to your team's strengths. Also, partnerships with industry and engineering firms can be a big help here too.

Working with students in FIRST was probably one of the most enjoyable and rewarding high points in my entire career. I'd recommend it to anyone.

Best of luck to you and your team!

communicate with other teams (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42504217)

I was on a local team in high school which was sponsored by an engineering entity much larger than NASA. At the championship, the usual trophies/medals/etc are handed out, but more emphasis is placed on the awards for cooperation and community outreach. Our team was mentored by world class engineers, but the emphasis was always on giving back to the community and helping out other teams. While I was there, the mentors took turns making detailed, weekly posts about running a team and the process of getting your robot ready. As a team, we also mentored some of the smaller teams around us. I think we might have even helped start some teams.

The point, I guess, is that best thing you can do is seek help from other teams. They will probably not build your robot for you, but they will certainly help you with your process and teach you things. This is one of the most important parts of FIRST.


Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42505029)

On our robotics team the mentors only mentor . The kids build from start to finish. They learn a tremendous amount about teamwork and design and engineering. Its all about learning and having fun.They only have a couple of competitions a year because that is all they can afford. The robots are built from scratch and the kids do an amazing job of designing them. It is wildly expensive to build and compete in these competitions that is where all the support (like NASA) comes into play.They get huge sums of money donated to them from these organizations which is awesome but if you don't have that backing its tough to compete against them. We can only go to 2-3 a year because of the cost to enter. The kids have a blast though so its worth it.

Teamwork (1)

wirelessjb (806759) | about 2 years ago | (#42505559)

Getting mentors that have engineering or shop skills (and equipment) is important, but frequently overlooked or undervalued is getting a mentor that knows how to talk to kids and get them organized and working as a team. I'm sure there are plenty of engineers that can do that, though its not the most common set of soft skills in a highly technical person. A teacher or a coach that can help the kids break down the competition, prioritize, divide up tasks, help kids identify their strengths and weaknesses as individuals and as a team, set schedules and priorities, and constantly help the kids remember why they are there can go a long way towards a successful competition and teach really valuable life lessons that they are not as likely to get in the classroom at college.

wish I could enter (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42505851)

4 years after entering with 759 I wish I could enter again with a team from my uni.

It's not about winning; it's competing... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42506003)

Two pieces:
1) FRC is about learning --- robotics is hard, take the small victories as best you can. If you happen to get to the point of dethroning the NASA kids then that's great.
2) Gracious Professionalism --- the FIRST ethos dictates that those kids who are working in privileged environments should be helping other teams to learn and grow.

Now -- now the heck do you build a lightweight frisbee tosser ---- we shall see what the kiddos come up with. Personally I think scaling the tower will be harder -- the devil is in the details since the rules are written to make it hard.

Re: In my 4 years of robotics competitions (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42506377)

In my 4 years of robotics competitions, the one thing I've always witnessed is that Mechanical without failure always fucks over Computer Science & Electrical by giving them practically zero time to refine their code with testing.

The ways to mitigate this:
1. Mechanical should have a complete solid model assembly & bill of materials down to the lock washers before they make a single metal chip.
2. Mechanical should have as much manufacturing as possible done by machine shops and rapid prototyping outfits like Shapeways. Sponsorship's if necessary to finance this. Money = Labor and since you start with a fixed pool of both, hopefully you'll have enough savings from #1, to provide your labor with a force multiplier. Otherwise, get an attractive girl on your fundraising team. Show cleavage.
3. Electrical should work with mechanical to have their shit planned from a wire & cabling perspective in advance. To some extent, it would be nice to have a completed electrical block diagram before mechanical even starts. BatchPCB.com is slow and cheap if you have discipline. Otherwise, find fast turnaround board house. Try to replace as much of your logic and power distribution with a PCB. Expect it never to be completed but it will help you plan your electrical work.
4. Don't bury your fuse holders where you can't fit a child's fingers. Make your shit serviceable, but also do not blow your entire war-chest on connectors. Bolt on ring terminals and lugs are almost as fast as connects but significantly less expensive and way more reliable. If you cover your vehicle in cheap Molex connectors, expect to spend 2 weeks looking for an intermittent connection at some point.
5. Strain relief your solder joints and connectors or you can expect to spend 2 weeks looking for an intermittent connection at some point.
6. Computer science is fucked. Seriously, put your head between your knees and kiss it. You can pray and hope for Hardware In the Loop & Unit Testing but you are essentially 100% at the mercy of a team of High School grade Mechanical and Electrical Engineers to not make amateur mistakes and dump a halfway working pile of aluminum and zip ties in your lap 7 days before competition.
7. #6 is inevitable unless your team is 100% Asian with heavy parental involvement. Fear of Seppuku may get you up to 2 weeks of actual testing before competition. This means lots of bench testing, and hopefully a very good plant model. Centralize your variables and offsets where you can maintain them and comment that shit. If you can accommodate a change in wheel diameter you're doing well. If you can accommodate a change in computer vision gear you're doing great.
8. FIRST has so many rules the specifics of the competition are beyond me. All my shit was in college. Chief Delphi forums but take it with a grain of salt. Opinions are like assholes, and confidence does not equal good advice.

If you follow these guidelines well, you will have a huge upper-hand over a NASA sponsored team using the Waterfall Method+Monster Garage Approach. Keep in mind, the reason the NASA team kicks so much ass is because they probably work from an even better set of guidelines than I have made for you.

I'm a judge (1)

adamjgp (1229860) | about 2 years ago | (#42506675)

I'm a FIRST Robotics judge for one of their regional competitions. After looking at this year's game, it seems to me that there will be frisbees flying all over the place. This is my 2nd year judging. Any good questions I you all think I should ask the kids?

Re:I'm a judge (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42506935)

Ask lots of "why" questions. Make them justify their decisions. It will be highly illuminating what degree of thought went in to them by the students & also how much independence the kids had in decision making from their mentors.

Ask them what they would do differently next year. Lessons learned type of shit. The entire point of student robotics competitions is to teach these kids what not to do before they are playing in the big leagues. If they get wacked with a big enough energy-drink newspaper, they may actually manage their time and resources effectively in college and the workplace. -Lol, year right.

To humanize their failures, identify what obstacles they had to overcome. You can spare the kids from broken families/unfunded programs from excessively brutal assessments of merit. No obstacles = mentors running the show or Bullshitting you.. No high-schooler has the experience to manage a large project like this without making a bunch of stupid mistakes along the way. If they can't own up to them, they haven't learned from them.

Check out the Robowranglers... (1)

Panaflex (13191) | about 2 years ago | (#42506733)

Out here the highschool team is pretty interesting and wins many competitions, though I haven't been out there. I know they have sponsorship from a couple of big engineering outfits, but it seems that they practice their work and learn quite a bit. http://www.robowranglers148.com/ [robowranglers148.com]

Taking a que from most all human endeavors (sports, music, etc), it would seem that testing, prototyping and practice are key elements. You need lots of time, material, and a coach that fosters talent from the whole team. Depending on a few key players will only lead to short-term glory and frustration.

You don't need NASA... (1)

swx2 (2632091) | about 2 years ago | (#42510185)

Having participated in FIRST myself during my high school years, our team was lead by a local University, 2 engineers from a locally based (but still large enough to be middling on the Fortune 500 list...) company, and in my first year, we won the championship in the early 2000s, and have since then won a few more times after I left.
It's an amazingly fun experience, and besides, as a HS student, this should be more of a learning experience for you. It's great to see the whole engineering process, from problem definition to solution implementation... including some of the work-place drama that goes on >_>

Current FIRST Mentor and former Student (1)

Ancantus (1926920) | about 2 years ago | (#42524117)

The object of the game (and I know it sounds cheezy) is not to win, its to learn. When I was a student, the mentors let US do the programming, designing, etc. While the robot wasn't as good as the adviser-bots; when your in the pit and YOU'RE working on the robot...well I wouldn't have traded it for anything in the world. You might not have a full practice field (hell I don't think we ever had the robot WORKING in time to practice anything!), but it really is fun no matter what place you finish in.

Now as an adviser, it drives me nuts when the students don't want to take the path I think is best. But FIRST is about experience, it shouldn't be a classroom where students sit down and watch engineers build things. Let the students make the mistakes (to an extent) and of course let them to ALL the work.

If your looking for good mentors, ask around the local college (if there is a engineering/technical minded college around your area). I know after I graduated from high school, I was eager to come back and work with the team as an mentor.
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