Robotics Competition, Day 1

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Today was a full day of qualifying rounds for the 2014 US FIRST regional competition in California, PA.

I didn’t investigate the arrangement, or the rules, too closely, but picked up a few things throughout the day. Each team alternates between the “Blue Alliance” and the “Red Alliance”, and each round has these alliances comprised of different team members. In this way, each team gets to work with and compete against various permutations of all the other teams. This arrangement provided for some very interesting matches, as some robots complimented others extremely well. Similarly, some robots provided better defense against others.

As I understand it, all of the teams on the winning alliance earn points. This allows strong teams to carry weaker ones. I like this, because it avoids penalizing a weaker (or perhaps junior) team, while still allowing for competition and the element of surprise. The top eight teams at the end of all of the qualification rounds then get to pick teammates for the final rounds. This is where the “all teams play with and against each other” format pays off: a team might not have scored consistently well, but they may compliment a high-scoring team’s tactics and thus be selected to join them.

Without a doubt most of the teams played strong offense today. As the day progressed, the skill of the robot drivers improved, and the quality (and quantity) of shots taken also improved. Most of the teams avoided any kind of aggressive defense until the afternoon rounds. Whether this was a function of learning the other teams playing styles (and strengths), or gaining a better understanding of what the referees would count as a foul, the end results were much more interesting afternoon matches.

The Bexley team made a conscious decision to make a defensive robot. Their thinking was that they could block opponents shots, and provide a valuable service to the other teams who had focused on offensive robots. This approach actually would have served them quite well, except for three major problems.

First, the Bexley robot was tall and thin, leading to some balance issues. During one match, the robot zoomed forward and toppled over onto its face, rendering it completely inoperative. The entire auditorium let out a gasp of surprise and shared frustration as the robot fell over.

Second, the Bexley robot wasn’t a very effective blocker. The goal was to quickly hoist a pole into the air to block the upper goals. The competition rules placed firm limits on a robot’s height, but permitted a telescoping arm of some sort to be extended for short periods. For several reasons the Bexley robot simply couldn’t hoist the arm high enough to effectively block shots.

Third, the Bexley robot was pretty flimsy. Furious repair work was performed after almost every round. The other robots were almost all short and squat, which yields a number of competitive advantages. Those robots that weren’t short or squat had superior design and construction.

Each match is played in two phases: a 30 second autonomous phase in which the robot does it own (pre-programmed) thing, and a teleoperated phase, in which a human driver controls the functions of the robot. Some of the autonomous sequences were nothing short of amazing. One team managed to score two aerial goals in that 30 seconds, all under the robot’s own control. Other autonomous phases were absolutely comical, as a robot would spin in circles and lob a playing piece out into the audience.

During one of the later matches, the Bexley team placed their robot into position at the start of the match, and then stood back for the autonomous round. Their robot quickly extended its blocking arm, and managed to successfully block a shot from an opposing robot. It was actually quite a treat to see the robot perform as desired, and there was an awful lot of cheering (and laughter) from our section.

I’m impressed with the organization of this event. The FIRST people have been doing this for two decades or more, and it shows. Teams are queued up well before their match. The matches are executed in quick succession. And there’s little wasted time after a match: the teams that just played haul their robots off the playing field as the next contestants are hauling their robots on.

The pit areas are a flurry of activity. There’s a strong focus on safety, and pit access requires safety glasses. Simple prescription spectacles are not sufficient.

I’ve learned an awful lot about what makes a successful robot, as well as some of the traits of a successful team. I’m more energized than ever before to volunteer to help Bexley with next year’s competition.

There are more qualifying rounds tomorrow morning. Then lunch, and then the real competition starts. I doubt anyone will pick the Bexley robot as a teammate, but we may be surprised tomorrow! I’m really looking forward to seeing how this concludes.


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