FRC 2016 Experience
This season was the best I’ve had so far. We made it to worlds again and had a blast and half at the same time.
First Robotics Challenge(FRC) is a popular high school robotics competition league. Teams are composed of students whom receive help from volunteer mentors in the area. At the beginning of the year, First Robotics, the organization managing the competition, releases the competition challenge to students across the world at the same time in order to prevent an unfair advantage. Students then have six weeks to invent, manufacture and test their robot for the competition requirements. The competition is similar to a sport in which there are different game objectives and rules to abide by. In the past there have been games where robots shoot frisbees into goals for points and breach different obstacles while shooting dodge balls into goals. After build season, students compete at regional competitions in elimination style bracket where teams of three are grouped into units called alliances. One alliance is given the opportunity to compete in the world championships if they win the regional bracket. Teams then are eliminated through a similar elimination style bracket until there is only one alliance left who is crowned world champions.
This year, my team 295, Granite Bay Robotics, had a great run as we made it to World Championships after a challenging regional at Las Vegas. I had a great experience driving the robot this year as serious robot contact was allowed in the rules this year. Last years game was a no contact sport which was a very dull experience for drivers and audience alike. The game this year was a combination of shooting dodge balls into a tower goal and also breaching defenses. After brainstorming ideas for the robot, we ended up with a complicated arm mechanism and a simple shooting mechanism. The arm was eventually axed and turned into a wedge and the shooter was inconsistent as we account for sensor placement in the mechanical design.
The programming team this year was very small with only 3–4 people programming the robot. This year, I had a lot of fun programming the autonomous side of the robot using an IMU. I was able to get the robot to drive to where I wanted it autonomously using commands such as DriveForward(time,speed) and turnRight(degrees) that I had built. Similarly, I developed helped another student develop a sensor visualization program to properly see the orientation of robot mechanisms on a laptop to assist the drive team during the match play. The only pitfall for the programming team this year was that we could not have enough people working on the scouter client which is used to collect data on other team’s robot performance. Next year, I plan to lead the programming team to delve into more diverse topics such as image recognition and git version management to improve the team’s efficiency.
Although there are new challenges every year, there are a couple of issues that repeatedly challenge my team over the four years that I have been a team member
FRC is a very expensive competition to compete in. Competitions cost teams $5,000 each which adds up as teams usually compete in two regionals every year. Robot parts usually cost around $2,000 total each year and attending world championships costs another $5,000 not including the transportation cost and lodging cost of the team. These costs means the team needs to do some serious fundraising every year. Intel is one of our team’s main sponsors as they donate money for every hour a mentor from Intel spends on the team. Last year, I provided a series of summer camps with another veteran member to raise $11,000 for the team over three short weeks. The camps were a lot of work but ultimately did pay off it pulled our team out of a bad time as we did not have much money left from the previous build season. However, this year we are facing the same money issue as we are almost out of money again. The summer camp registration started later than usual this year due to school regulations and resulted in a dratistically less number of signups. The team needs to have a dedicated business team whose job is to find sponsorships for the team.
2. Transfer of Knowledge
The failure of transfering knowledge has hurt our team. Each year, senior members leave the team without training remaining members. Moreover, seniors end up hogging most of the work which leaves the rest of the team with less experience. Next year the team will be at a big disadvantage as most of our experienced members have graduated already. This is a very difficult challenge to solve as trying to teach students from scratch requires a huge amount of time and effort which cannot be expected from a high school student. There needs to be a consistent amount of training throughout the year in small chunks of time to make it more convenient for senior members. Similarly, mentors need to be kept in the loop as they can provide years of industry experience and talent to help teach students about the field. The transfer of knowledge is going to be a very interesting challenge to be solved as it will require a great amount of coordination and work.
3. Teamwork is tough
Working in group projects is already tough. Now imagine working in a group five times as big. The FRC takes a huge amount of dedication from every single team member and mentor as designing, fabricating, programming, and testing a robot takes a huge amount of man hours. Team work is also essential in the challenge as the software, mechanical, and electrical aspects of the robot need to be designed together. I believe that the FRC workflow is similar to what people would experience working a corporate job which gives students a taste what it is like to work in the industry. Without proper coordination and communication the robot will continue to face design flaws that will bring down the robot. I have seen this in the past few years and the team continually suffers from it due to the way humans are. A good way to solve this would be to elect proper team leaders who have communication capabilities and can lead teams. Many times the team leads do all the work themselves which is contradictory to their job description. Due to this, people often feel left out and leave the team as they are not able to contribute to the team in a meaningful way. This could easily be solved by a communicative group of team leads who aim to help lead the team not build the robot themselves. The FRC experience is about the process of building the robot together not the competition itself.
The FRC 2016 Season was a great learning experience for me as I learned more about programming the robot and also about the challenges people face working in the industry. I hope I can solve these problems in the next build season and I can’t wait to see what challenge First will create for us next year!