Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Redemption from the Robotic Dark Side

I have made occasional allusions to my past history building combat robots.  Great fun with my mechanically precocious son, and the source of my modest knowledge base in building robots.

Now I am involved in FIRST robotics.  This is all about cooperation and constructive problem solving instead of destructive excesses.  It is somewhat tame but is also a superb experience that prepares students for work in the real world of engineering.  (To be fair I should say that the more....ahem...energetic experience of robotic mayhem also put my son on the path to a great career, but his has been an odd journey and one that most would/could not undertake).

In any case it is considered a little inappropriate to mention Battle Bots and like gaucherie in FIRST circles and I have kept mostly quiet about my sinful past.  Oh there are a few stories I have told the team.  And some others I have certainly not told them.  Things were a bit rougher in the early days of robotics.  Not everything was entirely safe.

I mention this today because I recently volunteered at a FIRST tournament that occurred some weeks before our team's competition.  I was a Safety Inspector.

A few of my friends from "back in the day" are probably sputtering in astonishment at that.  Because they remember things.  Things like:

Tank Commander Barby
The Brunswick Device
The Spam O' Nine Tails
Newton's Claw

and one weapon so horrific that the Safety Czar of the combat event emailed me this:

"A Fruit Cake!?  My God, have you no compassion for either Man or Machine?"

He also let us use it.

Oh, and there were some other "things" that we tried out in prototypes.  Things that even we recognized were Bad Ideas.

So, can somebody with so much Sin in their past find Redemption?  Well I would like to think so. Consider Vader turning from the Dark Side at the last, most crucial moment.  Consider Saul - that self described "chief" of sinners - having his moment on the road to Damascus.

Who would you trust more to find potentially unsafe elements in robots if not somebody who has built such things on purpose?

As it happens there was not that much for us to do as Safety Guys.  Most FIRST teams arise from school programs where they really do emphasize being safe.  And the kids were very focused on getting their machines running; so much so that the usual teen aged goofing around that precedes trouble was almost absent.

So the rare reminder on safety glasses.  Asking one team to grind metal in the approved area.  The occasional comment on keeping electrical cords out from underfoot. Otherwise I got to wander and wonder.

Our team's current pit set up is a work bench and a few tool boxes.  We are not going to aim for this Palace of Robotic Might, but it will make me encourage the team to use our remaining pre comp time to spiff up a bit.  Signs recognizing sponsor, nice team logos, that sort of thing.

Many teams give away little trinkets.  Buttons are common.  We have that covered.

There was, I speak words of implausible Truth here, a team from Hawaii.  Competing in Duluth Minnesota.  Among several interesting give aways they brought custom windshield scrapers.  They figured we could use 'em.  And they were right, it snowed hard on the second day of competition.

I suppose you really can't go too far in the pursuit of safety.  Really.  But a plexiglass box with first aid supplies that included a military grade dressing of the sort used for amputated limbs....well we did give them lots of inspection points for diligence. As an ER doctor I did wonder if any of these young people would have the presence of mind to actually act capably in the event of a catastrophe.  And maybe they would.  Some teams make their members all take First Aid and CPR training.  

Having never actually been at a FIRST event prior to this I also did a bit of scouting.  Taking a rookie team to its first event I wanted to see what other neophytes were bringing to the table.  I liked this art sculpture ball grabbing device.  I did wonder how often these grabby little metal fingers would get awkwardly caught on things.  A few hours into the event the hands were wearing duct tape "mittens"!


jon spencer said...

Here are working robots,

Tacitus2 said...

Impressive. And a little creepy to watch.

You can see why FIRST tends to do very well with corporate sponsorship. My kids are rookies and not quite ready for this level of stuff, but kids who have been on a team for a few years can go right over to Amazon and say "I can do that".