Thomas R. O'Donnell

Riding a robot to a world title

In Uncategorized on May 26, 2013 at 9:30 pm
beta team_picture

Team Beta, from left: Tanvi Yenna, Sidd Somayajula, Jordan Burklund, Chase Schweitzer, Saketh Undurty, Daniel Miller, Annie Howard

In the tradition of Gabrielle Douglas and Shawn Johnson, West Des Moines has produced another world champion.

This team, however, isn’t receiving nearly the attention or accolades, although the competition was equally demanding and the culmination of years of work. It’s unlikely you’ll see these competitors on a Wheaties box, on “Dancing With The Stars” or making product endorsements.

But you may soon see them designing computers, teaching English or running a corporation. They crossed oceans – remotely ­– to reach the pinnacle.

West Des Moines’ Team Beta brought home the Inspire Award, the top prize, last month at the FIRST Tech Challenge World Championships in St. Louis, besting 128 FTC teams from 16 countries.

Those 128 teams were the cream of about 2,500 from around the world. As the Betas point out, the Inspire winner represents the top .04 percent of teams around the world. Beta is the only Iowa team to go to world competition for three consecutive years and to win any award there.

Team Beta is seven Valley High School juniors: Jordan Burklund, Annie Howard, Daniel Miller, Chase Schweitzer, Sidd Somayajula, Saketh Undurty and Tanvi Yenna. Burklund’s mother, Emmaly, coaches the group and their mentor is Dale Herzberg, a technology education teacher at Stilwell Junior High in West Des Moines.

To ascend to the world championship, the Betas earned top awards at Iowa regional tournaments and at the state tournament, where 135 teams competed. The team is entering its fifth year, although the roster has changed. (Burklund and Undurty are the two originals.)

FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) is the older brother to the FIRST LEGO League (FLL) program that I wrote about earlier and which I’ve coached for four years. Like FLL, FTC teams must collaborate to build and program robots to perform tasks. But in FTC, the robots are bigger (two or three feet tall) and more complicated.

Unlike FLL, FTC robots compete directly against each other, on an open field, while also working together. In each match, each team must form an alliance with a randomly chosen second team to score points against another alliance, with one team in each pair typically playing defense and another offense. Teams must find one another’s strengths and capitalize on them, quickly developing a strategy to cooperate.

FTC robots are reusable from one season to the next, but the game changes – often requiring corresponding alterations in the robots.

For 2013, the game was “Ring It Up!” On a 12-foot square field, each alliance had to grab plastic rings from dispensers and slide them onto an upright rack, tic-tac-toe style, with more points for rings placed on higher rows. There are twists – some of the rings are weighted, but for instance – and other ways to score, like one robot lifting their partner’s robot off the floor at the end of the game. For all the details, see this summary (PDF).

The Betas used modeling software to plan its robot, Orion. Members fabricated pieces from aluminum plate and PVC pipes. As in FLL, the “brain” is a LEGO NXT smart brick programmed with LabVIEW and ROBOTC.

To counteract possible defenses, the robot was mounted on a turntable so it could rotate even if blocked in. Its extra-long arm is designed to reach over opposing robots.

To an FLL piker like me, the design is ingenious. Yet, Orion was a middling performer, ranking 28th out of 64 teams in its division after qualifying rounds and winning half of its eight matches at the world championship.

Team Beta excelled in other areas, however, especially when demonstrating its robot to industry experts and explaining the team’s design choices and process. They scored 10 out of 10 in all judging categories. I’ve seen the team’s engineering notebook, packed with meticulous entries and precise schematics. It looks like they tracked every idea and failed attempt. I’ve tried to get my FLL team to do this. They’re nowhere close.

And as in FLL, teams must demonstrate gracious professionalism, the win-win attitude promoting cooperation and collaboration. Judges scrutinize participants constantly to see how they interact with each other and with other teams.

What probably clinched the Inspire Award for the Betas is their outreach to the community and to other teams. They helped launch three teams, two at Valley Southwoods, the district’s freshman school, and one at Valley. They’ve mentored 16 other teams, written a “jumpstart manual” distributed to 78 Iowa rookie teams and hosted workshops.

The most fascinating outreach project, however, connected them with teams in Australia, Russia and other countries.

It started, Jordan Burklund says, at last year’s world championships, where the Betas learned that a team from India had qualified, but couldn’t attend due to visa issues.

That summer, he met the director of Australia’s FTC program, who jokingly invited the team to their competition. “We started thinking about, wouldn’t it be cool if we could send our robot someplace else and be able to compete?”

The team built Apollo, a robot made mostly from PVC pipes to cut weight and shipping costs.

Then the Betas rigged a way to guide Apollo via the Internet using USB over Network, an off-the-shelf program that lets someone operate a USB device plugged into one computer from another, distant computer.

That worked well; the team merely had to plug in a video gamepad to control the robot through another computer. But network administration issues made it tougher to operate over longer distances. To get around that, the team adapted another piece of software from Hamachi to create a virtual private network (VPN).

The team’s globetrotting robot has competed remotely in Australia, Russia and Spain. International teams, meanwhile, ran the robot at the Iowa championship in Iowa City this February.

I first saw the Betas at the Iowa STEM Summit in March, before they won the worlds. They’re a polished group of young people.

“The key ingredient is diversity, in both the interests on our team and the kinds of roles that we play,” Schweitzer says. Everyone participate in every aspect of the challenge, but each contributes something different. Somayajula and Schweitzer are the Web experts, Yenna and Howard specialize in writing funding proposals and presentations, and others lead in programming and robot design.

“What makes us good – or good enough – is the fact we don’t bring just one or a couple aspects but a lot of different things,” says Schweitzer, who sees himself working in corporate information technology someday.

Yenna, in contrast, wants to teach high school English. So why is she in FTC? The answer is in the team’s engineering notebook. “We have to transcribe our thoughts after every practice. Our communication skills have to be incredible,” she says. Through FTC, she’s learned to make and maintain contacts with corporate leaders, to make presentations, and other skills.

Emmaly Burklund, who began coaching six years ago with FLL, says the team has grown tremendously. “When I watch them go through a brainstorming process, it’s beyond the level of what I see in some adults. They just have a – I don’t know what it is, something about them and something about their interaction with each other.”

The Betas have a great reputation in corporate circles after presenting proposals and receiving support from companies like John Deere Corp., Rockwell Collins, National Instruments and more. (See the complete list here.)

The team’s projects led to part-time jobs for Schweitzer and Somayajula. An employee at website developer Webspec Design in Urbandale saw a competition scoring program for their graphing calculators the two team members wrote in Visual Basic. They scored internships that led to jobs this past fall.

Team Beta also is a favorite of the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council and has appeared multiple times with its co-chair, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds. And the team has received backing from West Des Moines government and has made presentations to the city council.

But “we’re not very well known at school,” Yenna says. That’s not all bad; the Betas want to represent all of West Des Moines, not just the schools.

The coach is probably most frustrated. “The team is not getting the recognition it deserves,” Emmaly Burklund says. The Betas hung their championship banner and displayed their trophy at the high school, but there was no announcement or assembly. The press has given them scant coverage.

It’s a big deal for all of Iowa, Burklund adds, because it’s the kind of success previously reserved for teams based in Silicon Valley or the East Coast. In fact, Beta isn’t just the first Iowa team to take top FTC honors; they’re the first from the Midwest.

The team will get to the site of a recent Olympics when it attends a competition in Australia – this time, in person. Beta and two other U.S. teams will go to the Asia-Pacific Invitational at Macquarie University near Sydney July 4-6. Thirty teams from 15 countries as distant as Saudi Arabia and Brazil will bring robots to play “Ring It Up!”

The Betas expect to sign on for competition in their senior year, Yenna says. It will be hard to top 2013, but members have ideas for goals. “We’ve never been able to build a competition-winning robot,” she says. “It’s always successful and unique, but it’s never the best at competition.” Team Beta may focus completely on that aspect, or it may continue and extend its outreach to other teams and the community.

Even if the community largely ignores them in return.

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