Thursday, April 14, 2016

FIRST Robotics - Starting a Rookie Team

(note: this post will be of very little interest to the general audience.  But, if you are contemplating starting a FIRST robotics team this should be gold)

Things we learned in our Rookie Year.  I am starting this 1/3 of the way through the build season and with no idea how things will turn out.  I promise, no editing of my thoughts post facto, I will simply add bits as we go.


Interest level at our school was greater than expected and with a decided shift towards the younger end of the age spectrum.  Having lots of freshpersons and sophomores bodes well for teams in the next few years.

Getting the word out early helps.  But some kids will just have other things they have to do. Swim team cost us several top notch recruits.

A significant percentage of emails and phone numbers that are scribbled during info meetings will turn out to be rubbish, usually after you have been trying to communicate via same for many weeks. Next time we get kid and parental contact information down solid from the start.

I think if we bring this year's robot along to next years early info sessions and let kids see/play a bit we will have more prospective team members than we can handle.

Early build Season

Many, probably most teams have the acumen to do the entire robot up in computer simulation. We went the more basic route of building individual elements and prototyping some parts in rough materials.  We should transition to a more methodical approach in the future.  My legacy of slapping together robots out of junk on hand has positive and negative effects.  Hopefully we come out of Year One with several kids eager to work more on the CAD/CNC side of things.  It will help us next year. Oh, yes, and that is the sort of thing FIRST is designed to encourage and teach.

Our ability to mock up the playing field considerably exceeded my expectations.

Initiative is great on the physical building side.  Not always so much with the software end of things.

The degree to which most teams build out of pre made parts also exceeded my expectation, but in this sense in a negative way.  It is like finding out that all the 5 star chefs in town secretly concoct their best stuff using cans of Campbell's Soup.  Or maybe that is the 3 and 4 star chefs. We have not been to competition yet, perhaps the elite teams fab many things.  That's where we hope to be in a few years.

While prototyping your build on a computer is an excellent and real world way to do things our team by temperament and austerity just started building mock ups out of scrap wood.  Kids really like power screwdrivers and dry wall screws.  Occasionally an expensive part shows less fondness for this method of construction.......

I fretted for days over the moment when we would make the irrevocable cuts in the frame.  No turning back.  For all the dithering that goes on at various points during the build the crew dismantled the "Proof of Concept" machine with gleeful efficiency.

Building the final machine

The kit that rookie teams get from FIRST does a superb job with the electronics and the basic drive system.  It is ok on the pneumatics, although one key piece either was left out or a kid lost it.  But for building a frame, ick.  You get a couple random bits of aluminum tube.  And you have to try and build on the drive base which has awkward angles and hard to get at places. After much irritation we opted for a short cut and used a conduit bender to make most of the frame out of heavy gauge EMT pipe.

We really should have worked harder to recruit a welder.  In general the "shop kids" are not that into extracurricular activities.  Next year we will have to change that a bit.

Actually, when you start asking a few kids what they can do you will turn up a couple who have had a semester of welding.  Oh, they are not artists by any stretch.  But it is better to have rough looking sturdy work done by a team member as opposed to elegant, well finished work that is done by either an adult coach or by sending it off to a shop to be worked on.

I thought I had a handle on the behaviour of high school students.  Just take the level of silly you see in middle school and reduce it by 10 or 20 percent.  Nope.  We have students from four different grade levels and what you can expect from an 18 year old is different than from a 13 year old.  Also, within and across age cohorts you will see a Bell Curve.  Some students, on some days, will surprise you with maturity beyond their years.  Others with, well to be frank, stupidity that surprises you.

I say this not as criticism especially as I was once young and intermittently wise and stupid. Also I know we have them at the tail end of a long school day or on a Saturday when they would usually be sleeping in.  The burden is on us as coaches to watch more closely than I would have thought.  Keep 'em busy.  Keep 'em where you can see them.

With a simplistic design we did not come close to the weight limit.

We effectively finished mechanical work with one week to spare.  This is one of the virtues of robust-n-simplistic.  Time to turn it over to the drivers and software team.  The mechanics get to fab spares, organize tools and stand by to fix things that break.  I had a couple of less robust components that concerned me.....

Home Stretch

Ah, about that less robust component thing.  Yep, had something crucial break with 9 days of build season left.  Enough time, but no extra, to go with another option.

Build fatigue set in hard during week five.  Quality of effort and results declined.  On the other hand, when the robot was running it did some amazing stuff, and the team was very enthused.

Oddly the kids who seemed to need the most stern looks and words are also the ones who are most keen on pressing on to competition.  I guess students do FIRST for all manner of reasons. Some like lines of code, others metal sparks and shavings.  Some like the social aspects of it all.

Practice Event

Interesting experience.  I was mentally prepared for us to be woefully unprepared greenhorns. But when we got to the event it was clear that our robot was ready to go out and compete.  Most of the others looked to be a week or so from completion.  This of course was three days before the "stop work" date.  There were also some entirely unnecessary radio control issues that would have been avoided with better instructions.

I was hoping for event equivalent area parts.  Instead they were wood mock ups just a little better than what we had been practicing on.

Our robot design was more robust than almost everyone else there.  That's good, we had no repairs of note to undertake.  Of course one of our less experienced drivers hit the wall once at speed.  We are lucky he did not go straight through it.

I don't mean to sound critical.  I know that running an event like this is very, very hard work. We learned some useful things.  Its just that when I run my little event back home I always start on time and keep my staff of minions aggressively on top of things.  I got the impression that for many teams this was just another Saturday build session with a bit of social atmosphere.

The In Between Weeks

When we started out the FIRST campaign we just assumed it would be best to compete at the closest event.  As it turned out that was also the event that had the longest time lapse between the "bag and tag" day where the robot went into enforced storage and the actual moment it would come out and compete.  I went to work as a volunteer at another area event and got a good look at the reality of trying to succeed with the challenge parameters.  From this experience and from watching videos clips of other events, I came to the conclusion that we had in fact been "too dumb to outsmart ourselves". A simple, sturdy machine driven by a team that had a narrow focus on which points to go for could do well.  Of course as of this writing I have no idea how focused our drivers will be, how efficient our pit crew will be, or of what additional tricks other teams can concoct with the extra time. (It is acceptable to keep up to 30 pounds of components out to work on them, and of course additional programming and strategy is fair game too.)

It is very odd to spend six weeks working frantically only to spend another six doing nothing while you wait to compete.

We actually only got the team together twice in the "in between time". Once to watch video from early tournaments and once to get organized for ours.

The Tournament

I have already said a lot this week about how our tournament went.  Surprisingly very well. Sticking to my theme of practical advice I only have a few things to add.

Man, was I right about the virtues of "simple and robust".  It can get you into the finals.  But it won't win them.

It does make sense, even as rookies, to have a scouting team and a lot of stats.  You might scoff at the notion that a bunch of newbies would become Alliance Captains and need to pick partners.  But that is exactly what happened to us and it is a darned good thing we were ready. Plus it is good practice for years ahead.  In this regard having our only Senior take on the task was silly, but if you have a willing volunteer and their interests are Theater, Math and go with it.

At the tournament you create your own little "culture" within a wider community.  Some teams are out there interacting with everyone, others are drawn in and sitting in their pit area.  You get the feeling sometimes that there are established teams that are getting a bit tired, or perhaps having an off year. There are some other teams whose desire to win is fierce.  When it became obvious that we would likely be an Alliance Captain the tone of visitors to our pit changed radically.  Early in the event we would get one or two scouts who would disdainfully glance at our bare bones machine, ask a couple of perfunctory questions, make a tick on their data sheets and move on.  As we hit the home stretch we had larger, much more interested delegations that were frankly campaigning. There were actual leaflets with "Top Ten Reasons to Pick Team ------ as an Alliance Partner".

The culture of our pit was based on efficient work and keeping adults away from the decision making.  It worked really well up to the finals.  At that point we had intense time pressure, too many kids in the pit - mostly from our alliance partners - and some hasty modification work. This is where the "hands off" approach of we coaches back fired.  I could see that what our team was being asked to do was not a good plan, and that there was not enough time to pull it off. But the etiquette was murky...does a rookie team get to call the shots because they are "Captain" or do they defer to two teams with lots of tournament experience and who passionately care about winning?

Ah well.

Hopefully anyone starting up a FIRST team will stumble across this in their search through the wilds of the Internet.  Email me for more, oh so much more, on the practical aspects of pulling off a successful rookie season.

It has been quite a ride and although not free of aggravations it has been totally worth it.

No comments: