"FIRST Frenzy" or "You Mean There is a DEADLINE?"
Every second is of infinite value.
Johann von Goethe
If it weren't for the last minute, nothing would get done.
W eek Six is usually a frenzy of activity as the Robot Shipment Deadline nears. The programming team is staying late to debug their code. Drivers are coming in when the build team isn't there so they can maximize their time driving the robot. One or more teams is frantically redesigning and rebuilding a key functional component because it proved to be too weak or didn't work as intended. This is all part of the fun and learning that comes with the FIRST Robotics Program. Team members are readying their final submissions for the Chairman's and Woodie Flower's Awards. This is when the late fall preparation really pays off. Parent boosters, meanwhile, are making active preparations for the Regional events.
If you are behind and most of this information does not apply to your team right now, DON’T DESPAIR! Many veteran teams were in your exact shoes when they started out in FIRST. Get help where you need it, do what you have to, and persevere. There is still time during practice day at the competition. Don’t worry, you will get there.
ROBOT CRATING CEREMONY
Plan to do something special during crating the robot. This is an opportunity for your team to recognize what you have accomplished over the past six weeks.
OPEN HOUSE FOR FAMILIES / SPONSORS
In the midst of getting the robot in the best shape possible, try to arrange an open house for families of team members and, perhaps, sponsors. Be clear to the attendees that work is still continuing and that takes precedence. However, realize that many family members (especially those of the adult mentors) have made sacrifices for their spouses, mothers, fathers to participate in this program. Acknowledging their sacrifice is a nice gesture. Opportunities also exist to invite sponsors to see what you have been doing with their money, supplies, and equipment. Take advantage of it.
It is important that all team members understand the schedule for the last week. Do your best to carve out blocks of time to complete what you need to before ship. Try to ensure that the right people are available also. If the drivers break something during practice, there should be someone available to fix it, if the drivers are otherwise employed.
SUBMITTING ENTRIES FOR FIRST AWARDS
The deadlines for these awards are coming up soon. Detailed information can be found at the FIRST website.
Check for grammar and spelling before you submit your entries - especially the correct spelling of Woodie! In fact, stop reading right now, go to your word processer, and add "Woodie" to the dictionary.
ROBOT DESIGN / BUILD
SYNERGY BETWEEN BUILD TEAMS
At this point the mechanical actuators and other electrical devices (motors, solenoids, compressor, vision system, etc) should be fitted to the robot and wired to the appropriate speed controllers, relays and other power distribution circuits. The operator Interface should now be fully assembled and ready for communication with the robot controller. Now the task of energizing individual circuits must be carried out to check for basic function and for proper control by the custom program that has been loaded into the program controller.
Extensive interaction between mechanical, electrical and programming subteams is critical at this juncture.
UNDERSTAND STRENGTHS / LIMITATIONS OF YOUR ROBOT
Your team has designed a robot with a set of functioning capabilities; most likely to perform a certain set of tasks in the context of the game. As the robot takes shape and the team further develops a better understanding of the game is played, you will inevitably find the functional strengths and limitations of your design. Stick with it, find additional ways to use those strengths to your advantage and work to minimize the impact of any limitations. You’ll find these learnings will continue as you progress through your competition schedule – Learning to adapt will be a common theme.
VARIATION OF FIELD COMPONENTS
Even though your robot may work perfectly with the components you built, it may not perform the same way with actual playing field components when you attend a competition. It is important to understand that with multiple playing fields being used and abused over the months of March and April, playing field component dimension and consistency will vary. This is a fact of the real world.
Take time now to consider possible modifications you might need to make due to playing field variability.
CONTINUE MAKING SPARE PARTS
Spare parts are an important part of building the robot. The rules on when to make spares changes every year so be sure you read the manual thoroughly and keep reading all of the team updates. We try to make spares of any part that requires special equipment to fabricate or of parts that we expect to fail during a match. The best time to start building spares is during week 5 and 6. The robot is essentially complete by this time and as the students become available we put them on building spares. Having the robot there to copy from is a good reason to start on the spares before the ship date.
Before sealing the robot in it’s crate, check the robot weight one last time with all components on the scale.
Also, before your bot is crated, run one last pre-competition check of the starting envelope (28 inches by 38 inches by 60 inches). Pay special attention to appendages that may protrude past the envelope dimensions.
Check the FIRST Documentation (robot rules) and Robot Rule on the Fix It Windows to understand the rules regarding the creation of spare parts and upgrades.
COST ACCOUNTING RULES
Check the FIRST documentation. All costs of all non-2011 Kit parts and materials used in the construction of the ROBOT must be recorded (in US dollars) be the team. You must submit a list of all such items and their costs at your robot inspection at the competition.
It is best to complete this list prior to shipment of the robot. Take some time to go over the robot parts and list all non-kit parts and their associated costs.
*DOWNLOAD* MOE 2005 Robot Cost List
Here is an example of Team 365’s actual robot cost list for 2005. Feel free to have fun with this to guess how we constructed our robot!
ROBOT COMPUTER PROGRAMMING
Ideally, your robot is built and you are fine tuning the performance of the mechanical, electrical, and control systems. A more realistic state is that you have your robot assembled, the wiring and actuators in place, and are testing a first cut at a control routine. You should be testing the control program interaction with each sub system. Questions to be asking and things to be checking out early this week:
* Are you correctly reading your sensors and operator controls?
* Do the motors rotate the direction you expected?
* Are you energizing the correct relays,
* The transition from Autonomous Mode to Remote Control mode.
* The Autonomous Mode selection scheme.
After each subsystem checks out, you should have your final version of the integrated control code. Spend the rest of the week exercising the integrated control code along with the associated mechanical and electrical systems. If you have an autonomous capability in your robot, this exercise period is where you tune your autonomous routine(s).
DEBUGGING AUTONOMOUS CODE
When you are ready to test your autonomous routine on the full-size robot, initial tests should be done with the robot on a cart. Safety is very important because of the size and weight of your robot and the potential dangers of a runaway robot. Always wear eye protection and use other safety protection (such as gloves) when needed. Know how to use your "dongle" before you start running any tests. Most likely your primary concern will be the wheels moving appropriately. So your cart should be designed so that the wheels can move while the robot is held stationary. If you have included other robot movements, such as an arm moving during the autonomous mode, then this also should be tested in the safest way possible. Once you are confident that the robot is doing what you want it to do, then you can test it on the ground. However, always be prepared for it to move faster and go farther than you expect.
KEEP BACKUP COPIES OF YOUR PROGRAM
Your programming team has invested a great deal of time in the development of the robot’s autonomous and operator-controlled programs. It’s kind of hard to lose a 120 pound robot, but it is very easy to lose a program. We cannot emphasize this enough – keep multiple backup copies of every version of your autonomous and operator control programs. You WILL need them at some point. Perhaps not even this year, but you will need them. Trust us – we learned the hard way!
TEAM UPDATES / FIRST Q&A / CHIEF DELPHI
In week 6, you will start to see teams post the real deal online. As we mentioned earlier, you will need a robot photo for the Team Yearbook. It is recommended that you take a photo (preferably medium-to-low resolution digital) of your completed robot to share on the web. You do not have to reveal critical portions of your robot if you feel they will give you a competitive advantage in your first regional. After your first competition, however, the whole FIRST community will know about your secret high-speed shift-on-the-fly five-speed synchromesh transmission and your patented Multi-Ball-All-In-One-Grabber-Holder-Shooter. ;-) Seriously, though, this is the time when teams begin scouting other teams in earnest.
While you may not find information on all teams via Chief Delphi or the teams’ own websites, much preliminary information is available. In the spirit of Gracious Professionalism, make it easy for other teams to find out about your robot. They may end up being your alliance partner!
SHIPPING THE ROBOT
Whether you're ready or not, your robot must ship by the deadline. We'll pack our robot the night before. (Or the wee hours on Februray 17th!)
PREVENTING DAMAGE DURING SHIPPING
Many robots have been damaged in the process of shipping. It would be a shame to struggle with robot repairs and miss valuable practice sessions at competitions due to shipping damage that can easily be avoided. Simple methods to avoid damage include the following:
1. Secure every item in the crate, light or heavy, big or small. Use common sense. Imagine it is YOU in that box because, if fact, it is a big part of you and your team!
2. Secure your robot's "appendages" such as arms, hooks, cables, bars, etc, to the robot itself so they do not flop around causing damage. Bungee cords or shrink wrap film work great. It is also an option to remove these items and pack them separately (in the crate, of course) as long as they can be easily and confidently reassembled at the competition venue.
3. It is best to secure the robot itself, or cart and robot combination, to the bottom of the crate by the frame or wheels. Eye hooks, bungee cords, nylon strapping, rope or combinations of these are appropriate. These crates are knocked around quite a bit and will be frequently tipped for loading on and off of trucks. If only the robot's upper frame is secured to the sides of the crate the robot could get twisted or bent out of shape, especially if your robot is tall.
4. Remove the battery from the robot and ship in the crate according to the special instructions in Section 6 of the competition manual. Or transport the batteries separately, if allowed.
5. Securely bubble-wrap fragile items such as the control station, laptop computers or other peripherals. Or, transport those items separately.
6. Be conscious of the amount of weight going into the crate, you might want to weigh each individual item before packing to assure that you do not exceed your weight limit. Our crate plus robot weighs about 380 lb, so we'll be able to stay under 400 lb, saving us some drayage charges.
What is packed in the crate is limited only by size, weight (FedEx limit is 600 lb per crate) and obvious safety factors (no perishables or dedicated team members, please). Other items that can be included are items a team does not want to carry separately to, or through, the competition venue such as carts, spare robot parts, extra batteries, hardware, fasteners and accessories or hand tools. It is best if only pit essentials are included in the crate. Items such as banners, flyers, give-aways, or other items that may only be used for team support in the stands only add nonessential weight and may also require attention in what we can guarantee will be a very crowded and active pit situation. Safety is FIRST.
Besides the perishables and potential breakables, also leave out robot items that you may need for practice or training in preparation for the competitions. Strategy books, build plans, specialized tools, software and computer items fall into this category. In summary, plan ahead. Create a packing list if necessary.
DRIVER TRAINING / ROBOT TESTING
Driver training is possibly the most worthwhile investment of time that a team can make during the build season. Once you have a chassis on the floor, whoever you have selected as driver should be driving it every minute that it is not being worked on. In FIRST, driver skill is one of the greatest differentiators. A good, experienced driver can make an average robot great, and a poor, inexperienced driver can make a great robot average. This has been proven many times over. So once again, practice, Practice, PRACTICE!!!. It will help your team more than you could possibly realize.
If you are having problems finding time to drive to robot, schedule separate times for just the drive team to come in and practice driving.
Driver practice also is extremely helpful with regard to the actual robot. If you get in enough practice time, you will have a relatively good idea of what is breaking on the robot, and how to fix it. You then can strengthen those areas, thus improving your robot, while your drivers improve their skills.
RUN THROUGH MOCK MATCHES FOR TIMING
Once the robot has neared completion, the question everyone wants to know is: Will it do what we built it to do? Often, the answer to the question on the first try is no. But don’t be discouraged. Analyze what happened, and figure out how to fix it.
Once you have things working, try accomplishing the objective, while watching the time. Make sure that you will be able to do what you want to do in the time that you have. Many times, teams will simply not be able to achieve the required task in the match due to time constraints. Plan for this. Give your drivers practice, so that they get a good idea for how fast they have to do things to get them done. When they can do that, start adding a few complications, block parts of their line of sight, place small barriers in the middle of the field for them to maneuver around. Mainly, just try to get them comfortable with thinking on the fly.
PREPARE YOUR PIT CREW
Preparing the pit crew for competition is like preparing an army squad for battle. The pit crew must have plans, hierarchy and discipline in place. The key elements are:
1. Have a plan to check out the robot each time it comes back from the competition field. (damage assessment). Each student on the pit crew should have a specific area of the robot to assess.
2. Report damage to the pit boss so that a decision can be made on what tasks needs to be addressed first, which activities can happen in parallel and which ones need to happen in series.
3. After the robot appears to be able to run properly, the crew must have a plan to do a check to assure that all components are operational (pre-flight test).
RUN THROUGH THE FIRST INSPECTION SHEET
Have the students on the pit crew who are responsible for pneumatics, controls, electrical, drive, and unique component mechanisms review the inspection sheet. Have mentors be mock judges and do a pre-run through of the inspection sheet. This should occur after shipping and before the first competition.
PREPARE LIST OF ROBOT MATERIALS AND ALL ASSOCIATED COSTS
If you haven’t kept a list of all the materials used on the robot as you built it, now is the time to prepare it. If you wait until after it ships, you will not have the physical robot to refer to when ensuring that you have everything captured on the list. Having this list is a requirement for getting the robot certified as acceptable for competition at each event.
ATTEND A LOCAL “SCRIMMAGE”
Find a local scrimmage in your area to test your robot on a practice field. Ask veteran teams where one might be. Scrimmages are usually held the weekend before shipping. This year, many will be held on the weekend before shipdate.
The next best thing to practice at a competition venue is a local scrimmage. Try have a functioning machine by the date of the scrimmage. Whatever practice you get will be valuable driver training time. You will also get a first glimpse at what robotic marvels other teams designed.
OBTAIN INFORMATION ABOUT COMPETITION VENUE
The FIRST website will have current information available on each competition venue. Read this information and start thinking about the logistics of getting your team to the event and then to and from the event venue and where you will be lodging. If you are lucky enough to have a competition in your own back yard, begin working on carpools.
COMING NEXT WEEK – The Joys of Scouting!