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My Mistakes Starting Our FIRST Robotics Team

My Mistakes Starting Our FIRST Robotics Team

Gilmour Academy founded its team for the FIRST Robotics Competition when Daniel Zhang’16 fiercely (and politely) lobbied our administration for support. Zhang is a force of nature and pushed the idea past a lot of resistance. Things might have gone another way but he secured grants from FIRST, NASA, and our good friends at Rockwell Automation. Alumni support followed soon after (thanks again!) and we had ourselves the means to get to work.

I knew I had gotten in over my head, but it would take a while to realize just how far I had strayed from my comfort zone. Fortunately, the students’ made up for my lack of technical expertise with zeal and Google-Fu. Our partner school, North Royalton HS (an arrangement also spearheaded by Zhang), deployed the ever-talented Mr. Nestoff (seen here helping one of his students earn a quarter-million dollars in prizes). It’s safe to say we all learned a lot on the fly.

A good learning experience is one with a lot of mistakes. All sorts of mistakes. So many that, in an effort to help other FRC teams, avoid the same (and to write down some reminders for next year), I’ve had to organize our blunders into categories:

FRC Timeline and Milestones

  • Commitment: Becoming dependent on any one student is especially risky if that student’s commitment is anything less than rock-solid. We were unclear with students’ time commitment as we were unsure of what to expect from the season. As a result we had students attend work sessions irregularly and it had a big impact. We need to publish a meeting schedule (light but regular Fall meetings and an all-hands-on-deck fury of work from January to March) then have both parents and students commit to that program.
  • Drive train before winter break: We spent the first four weeks of the six week build period stuck on basic movement. We should have used something like the Andymark KoP to build a simple base before the year’s challenge was even announced. Then we adapt the flexible platform to meet the competition.
  • Purchasing rounds: This is something I still don’t entirely understand but I will need to get into it next year. There are two rounds of purchasing where teams can specify the most urgently needed part for their design. We missed both rounds purely out of ignorance of the process. And so we didn’t get the Rhino treds we wanted because they were all sold out once the market was opened up to us plebs.
  • PM expectations: Things got a little chaotic and communication broke down at times. Our use of Slack was a huge help. Our discipline on Trello faltered. Next year’s team will be bigger and the need for project management software greater. We’ll make the expectation that all tasks get posted and commented on Trello really clear, really early.
  • Drive time with a dedicated console laptop: Our pilots were still learning the basic nuances of controlling our robot, Luna, the day of the competition. We need to set a stop date a week or two before our robot’s quarantine so we can drive and iterate.   
  • Remember to use Day 1: The first day of the competition is all about practice and inspection. We have that time to get the robot up to expectations… which explains why so many teams brought tons of gear.
  • Submitting form for food: Our competition, the Buckeye Regional, serves boxed lunches to students. All we needed to do was submit a form. Got to remember to submit the form.

Robot Design Fundamentals

  • Kick-Off Planning: The kick-off event is when the details of this year’s challenge are announced. We used that time to inventory our issued parts (they all looked alien at the time) and to quickly brainstorm and discuss the challenge. We should have dug in and worked out a preliminary design so our Finance Team could get ready to make purchases.
  • Log parts used: We didn’t build a second robot (we were already overworked and behind schedule). But it would have been so much easier if we kept a clipboard by the work area and quickly noted every bolt that went onto the bot.
  • Shock absorption around electronics: This is a big one. Our team would have shot up in the rankings if we were just able to move. But big impacts would reset our network connection. It took us a while of crawling over cables and error logs to figure out where problem was. Having our electronics panel on a plastic sheet was our biggest mistake of the season. Once we put foam under the RIO and router then hot glued it all down, our issue was resolved.
  • Numbers: A lot of teams seemed to struggle with this. Numbers need to be 4″ high, white, and outlined in black.
  • Talon controllers: Our motor controllers we picked out were the cheap ones that didn’t have easy calibration. That turned out to be a bit of a pain. Next year we’ll use the Talon SRX and enjoy easier calibration so the left wheels are in sync with the right.

Roles and Responsibilities

There is just so much to the FIRST Robotics Competition. Awards are given for outreach, mascots, and all sorts of activities we never even considered. Scrambling for parts and resources, we left our supporters in the dark instead of keeping everyone engaged with our team. So much was missed. Next year, we’ll have deadlines and responsibilities clearly outlined for each committee. Joining that team obligates you to meet those marks.

  • Award Team: Tracks our progress on all award submissions and makes sure we get our paperwork in
  • Design Team: Agrees upon a sketched design, helps build the list of parts, and constructs a model in CAD
  • Build Team: Group responsible for delegating and executing our design
  • Scouting Team: Uses social media to gain ideas on what teams around the country are doing. During the event, categorizes other teams’ robots to find complementary allies
  • Marketing Team: Updates website, manages Twitter (website materials for sponsors) (button exchange) (mascot)
  • Outreach Team: Recruitment and supporting upstart robotics programs in the area
  • Finance Team: Fundraising blitz in coordination with our development office, processing purchase orders, tracking budget
  • Media Team: Collecting and storing audio, video, and images. The value of this team must not be underestimated
  • Safety Team: Studying safety policies and enforcing them. Assuring that necessary safety equipment is always at hand in the lab and on the road
  • Rules Team: Study the regulations and deadlines and brief other teams on compliance issues

Preparing for the Pit

The floor space of the competition was unlike anything I imagined. It was a spectacle of fantastic proportions. There’s no way our setup can compete with teams that have built up their program for over a decade. We saw work stations with elaborate, custom build decorations. But we can sure get ourselves on track so that we’re at least able to compete with those teams in the playing field.

  • Checklist: We scrambled for things we forgot back at school. Build a checklist. Check it twice
  • Dolly: Ours was the only team silly enough to try carrying our robot to and from the playing field. Most teams have customized carts for their bot. That’s the first thing we should have built
  • Traveling tool chests: We saw some great DeWalt traveling toolkits. Logistically, our monster toolbox was a pain to haul around. As we’ll need to buy more tools in the future, we’ll plan for mobility
  • Drive Station software: Having to adjust the version of the Drive Station software is a time consuming process (not the easiest installation process). We must verify we’re using the same version used during competition. We’ve also got to practice deploying code over Ethernet cable instead of over WiFi. The wireless connection is disabled during the day of the competition and it took a while for us to get the bugs worked out on deploying software modifications
  • Driving consoles: It turns out that the physical layout of the laptop and controller is a point of pride for most teams. They’ve got LED lighting and team numbers cut out of steel panels. We need to remember to put something snappy together (with a cool looking Madcat 3 joystick)
  • Banners and flags: Our 10×10′ square was so bare
  • Better safety gear: A fire extinguisher and battery spill kit are required. We had to borrow the latter. Also our safety glasses didn’t fit over peoples’ spectacles and that was a real pain
  • Batteries: They all needed to have “pig-tails” on them so we could swap them out faster. And charging was a real pain, other teams have sophisticated racks to safely charge and store the batters

Underestimating Gracious Professionalism

The organizers of FIRST make a big deal over their concept of sportsmanship they call gracious professionalism. I nodded when I heard about it and said, “sure, that sounds great.” I had no idea the lengths people would go to help us. Here’s where I give a huge shout-out to Mr. Hauch of Team 4931. His published software, Strongback, was the basis of our robot’s brain. Moreover, the patient man spent hours on Skype with me and my students. Not only was he explaining how to program for FIRST, he advised our team on strategy and preparations. We’re now eager to pay the good will forward.

Next Year

We can’t wait. Both our schools are excited and now I’m looking to hire a Robotics Instructor here at Gilmour to develop a program in grades 3-8. It’s an amazing way to get students excited about engineering in a rigorous, hands-on challenge.