Thomas R. O'Donnell

Big bots storm castles in Iowa competition

In STEM on April 4, 2016 at 7:35 am
FRC robots mix it up on the playing field at Cedar Falls' McLeod Center.

FRC robots mix it up on the playing field at UNI’s McLeod Center.

It was mechanical mayhem in a medieval milieu.

In Cedar Falls March 24-26, 52 teams of high school students (mostly from the Midwest but also three from China and one from Brazil) pitted their mechanized marvels (OK, I’m laying off that bottle of Old Alliteration) in the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) Iowa Regional tournament. Eleven Iowa teams competed.

At the McLeod Center, where the University of Northern Iowa Panthers usually chuck balls at baskets, robots instead fired “boulders” at mock parapets. It was just one of several missions the machines, each built from scratch, carried out on a theme of attacking and overcoming a castle’s defenses.

This was Iowa’s first FRC regional competition. Teams that did well in Cedar Falls will go on to the championships in St. Louis at the end of April.

My son, Thomas, is on Team ASAP (4646), a collection of Des Moines-area students, and I attended the three-day robot bash. It was a raucous, nerdy – but cool – celebration of technology and engineering. I knew before I got to Cedar Falls what the robots had to do. How they did it, much less that they did it at all, was extraordinary and inspiring.

The tournament host was the Swartdogs (Team 525), named in honor of Cedar Falls High School physics teacher Kenton Swartley, their long-time mentor. The team has pushed to hold a regional in Iowa for about the last two years, Swartley said.

It took some convincing to get FIRST to agree, but “with the number of teams in Minnesota (over 200), there weren’t enough regionals” to give upper Midwest teams competition opportunities, so more were needed. The team overcame another obstacle – financing – when Deere & Company, UNI and other sponsors signed on. The Swartdogs, obviously, had a lot of help, including from a planning committee led by mentors Bruce and Jan Newendorp.

I’ve written before about other FIRST competitions, like FIRST Lego League and FIRST Tech Challenge. (Coincidentally, Jordan Burklund from Team Beta, the FTC team I wrote about in 2013, also was a member of Team ASAP.) FRC is the biggest (robot-size-wise) of the many competitions sponsored by FIRST, a nonprofit inventor Dean Kamen launched to promote interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers.

ASAP's Sherman negotiates the sally port obstacle during FRC competition on the University of Northern Iowa campus in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

ASAP’s Sherman negotiates the sally port obstacle during FRC competition. Click to enlarge.

Apart from the robots’ sizes, the major difference between FTC and FRC is how they’re built. FTC teams tinker with their machines all the way up to competition time and throughout the season. FRC teams must build theirs in six weeks, then formally “bag and tag” them. Teams aren’t allowed to touch their creations again until their first regional, when they can make adjustments, working in the pits between matches. (Cedar Falls organizers even had a machine shop at the pits, located in the UNI-Dome, for teams to fabricate parts.)

The short build time, Swartley says, gives FRC teams a taste of working in industry: “If it’s a business, they’re going to have a timeline” to complete a prototype.

As in FTC, each FRC team must raise thousands of dollars to finance robot construction, travel and other expenses. To meet FIRST goals, teams also hold outreach events at schools, shopping malls, businesses and elsewhere and help start and mentor new teams.

Mentors – sometimes parents and teachers, but more often volunteers interested in helping youths succeed and learn – provide technical advice. They’re often engineers and information technology workers from local companies like Deere & Company and DuPont Pioneer, but also experts in fields ranging from education to publishing.

Swartley qualifies as an old-timer among FRC mentors, with around 17 seasons advising the Swartdogs. “I enjoy the engineering challenges,” he said, and “the opportunities it provides for students are really amazing.” Besides picking up technical knowledge, youths learn leadership, teamwork, and business management and interpersonal skills. FIRST sponsors several college scholarships, too.

More importantly, Swartley said, he’s drawn to the values FIRST promotes, including gracious professionalism, which encourages respect and collaboration with a win-win attitude, and “coopertition,” in which teams compete fiercely but without rancor, helping each perform at its peak ability. In that spirit, it’s common for teams to share tools, parts and advice.

Castle keep

Each year’s FRC competition is on a theme. This year it’s “FIRST Stronghold”: teams must defeat defenses modeled on a medieval castle. It all takes place on a field about half the size of a basketball court.

Teams – most of which will have never met before the tournament – work in alliances of three on each side, putting six robots on the field for each match. The alliance aspect means teams must scout each other, learning strengths and weaknesses, and then collaborate on strategy.

Sherman fires a boulder (upper left) into the blue alliance tower during FRC Iowa Regional competition at the University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls.

Sherman fires a boulder (upper left) into the blue alliance tower during FRC Iowa Regional competition.

In “FIRST Stronghold,” teams get points for crossing a collection of barriers, like a low “rock” wall, a low bar, and perhaps most nefarious, the cheval de frise: teeter-totter-like planks with alternating ones facing the robot tipped up and down. Robots had to manipulate other barriers, such as a portcullis or a drawbridge, to get through them.

To throw teams off, volunteers rearrange the barriers for each match based on the opposing alliances’ decisions and other factors. That means teams must be ready for almost anything, especially in the first 15 seconds, when robots are programmed for autonomous operation. (Students standing behind Plexiglas barriers operate the robots for the remaining 2 minutes, 15 seconds in a match.) A team can’t program its robot to go through just one type of barrier; it may not be there.

Once through the barriers, the robots attack the opposing team’s tower by launching boulders (actually balls about the size and weight of a volleyball) through either an opening near ground level or one 7 feet off the ground. Hitting the latter, obviously, earns more points. Getting enough boulders into a tower to eliminate its defenses (as indicated by red LEDs) earns even more points.

If that’s not enough, the teams can “capture” a tower by parking their robots on ramps at the base of their opponent’s tower as the match ends – something that’s harder than it sounds. The real pièce de résistance is when a robot “scales” the tower at the end of the match, grabbing a bar on the tower’s side and pulling itself into the air.

For a more detailed explanation, watch the FIRST video below.

After practice matches the teams compete in qualifying rounds, tossed into alliances that change with each match. The top eight teams based on qualifying scores each pick two other teams based on their scouting to form alliances for the finals.

Cedar Falls faceoff

The variety of challenges forces teams into design choices. At the Cedar Falls Regional, many opted for low-slung robots short enough to go under the low bar (the only barrier present in every match). Short robots also have a lower center of gravity, making it easier to cross other barriers.

But some teams built tall robots that emphasized accurate mechanisms to fire boulders into the high goal. Each time a tall robot crossed a barrier, however, it risked toppling. One team’s robot even had a small wheel that would pop out from behind to keep it from falling over backward.

Strange headgear (and safety glasses) are de rigueur at FIRST competitions, as Team ASAP demonstrates. At FRC Iowa Regional in Cedar Falls, Iowa March 24-26, 2016

Strange headgear (and safety glasses) are de rigueur at FIRST competitions, as Team ASAP demonstrates.

Robots had ingenious innovations to cross barriers or to gather and fire boulders. Team Gator (5172) from Minnesota built a tall robot that sucked up boulders and conveyed them up to the firing mechanism. It had an aiming device similar to a tank turret. The drivers would place the robot in range, turn the turret left or right, and shoot. It was nearly flawless.

The range of devices teams deployed to do a chin-up on their opponents’ tower may have been even more varied than the shooting mechanisms. Some used a scissor-lift type arm to reach up, grab the bar and pull up the robot. Others tried arms to lift hooks attached to ropes onto the bar. And a few used steel tape measures – still painted yellow.

Some of these methods worked spottily, but when they did it was spectacular to see a robot lift into the air. Teams and spectators in the McLeod Center stands went wild.

Sherman, ASAP’s robot, did almost everything to some degree – after repeated tweaking. It was short enough to go under the low bar. Its conveyor belt-like arm not only pulled in boulders but also held down the cheval de frise and lifted the portcullis. Its low center of gravity helped it cross the uneven surfaces of other barriers. And once it had a boulder in its grasp its motorized wheels fired them at the high goal with reasonable accuracy, aided by a complex, student-designed vision tracking system.

A Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier video captured some of the action.

In the championship, the Gators and Swartdogs aligned with Team 1208, the Metool Brigade from O’Fallon, Missouri, to defeat Team Driven (1730) from Lee’s Summit, Missouri, Tigerbytes (1775) from Kansas City and FIRST Bots of Independence (1723), also from Missouri. The Gators-led alliance won the first two of the two-out-of-three matches faceoff.

Other teams also will go on to the championship by dint of winning judges’ awards or taking wildcard slots left open because a winning team had already qualified in a previous regional. The Swartdogs, for example, also qualified by winning the prestigious Chairman’s Award in recognition of their outreach and other activities.

The Swartdogs will compete in one more tournament, this weekend in the 10,000 Lakes Regional in Minneapolis, and then prepare for the championships April 27-30. It’s the seventh year in a row Team 525 has gone to the finals, although neither it nor any other Iowa team has won it all. Yet.

The Cedar Falls event came off well is likely to return next year. Swartley expects even more Iowa FRC teams will be around to attend.

“I would say it hasn’t really taken off yet” in the state. “I’m envisioning bigger things.” Iowa had three rookie teams this season and two last season. With the Cedar Falls event’s availability and “scale-up” grants from the Governor’s STEM Initiative, Swartley thinks the state could have 10 or more new teams this fall.

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