Union Robotics Program Builds Engineering, Problem-Solving and Technology Skills
By Mike Whittlesey
Last Week: The robotics extracurricular program at Union Community Schools was founded at Union Middle School in 2010 and expanded to Union High School a year later. By the fall of 2013, the high school had two teams, Robota White and Robota Red, competing in the FIRST Tech Challenge, hoping to advance to the State Championship Tournament and, perhaps beyond.
Thanks to curricula offered by high schools throughout the state of Iowa, students have the opportunity to learn to speak a foreign language, such as Spanish, French or German. In fact, the benefits of learning a foreign language are important enough that state universities include the requirement as part of their admissions process.
For students involved in competitions sponsored by U.S. FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), there is an opportunity to learn language of a different sort- programming. And for those who can learn to speak “robot,” there are benefits that await them in career fields involving math, science and engineering.
To succeed in the FTC BLOCK PARTY! competition, teams build a robot that earns points completing specific tasks. How the robot accomplishes these tasks is a blueprint each team creates from scratch, using a standardized set of parts and guidelines that establish the general parameters of the robot’s construction. A team’s success on the playing field will depend on the quality of the robot’s design and construction, as well as the programs the team writes that drive their robot’s movements.
Teams begin the process of constructing and programming their robots in September, after the rules of the FTC competition are announced online. From October through January, each team has the opportunity to compete in two or three tournaments that will determine who advances to compete at the next level- usually at a state championship tournament. Teams use the qualifying competitions to test their designs and programs, making refinements, as needed, in hopes of scoring more points at their next competition.
After weeks of preparation and countless hours spent constructing and programming their robots, a team’s fate is determined by three stages of play that happen in a two and a half minute period of time. The first stage, Autonomous, lasts 30 seconds. During this stage, teams are not allowed to handle their robots. Instead, it is controlled solely by the programming code the team has written and installed. Scoring tasks include placing cubes in buckets, with additional points awarded to cubes placed in the bucket where an infrared beacon has been randomly placed. Teams are also awarded points for navigating their robot on to the playing field’s ramp.
Nine pages of computer code, line after line of colored text and numbers that, to a novice, might look like gibberish. Not so for the team, however, who was counting on this program to score big points.
“For autonomous, we wanted to max out points:
1. Cube in bucket +20
2. Infrared bucket +20
3. On Ramp +20
We did not want to add a separate mechanism for autonomous, so we took on the challenge of using our main cube gripper and endcoders for putting the cube in the infrared basket.”
The basic form of the program included five basic steps:
“1. Drive parallel to baskets until basket is directly left of robot.
2. Turn towards basket (left).
3. Dump cube with arm, wrist, and gripper.
4. Turn left again.
5. Drive forward, around outside basket, and up the ramp.”
Notes on the flip-side of the program revealed modifications the team made after testing the program:
“Once we had this working, we decided it needed to be faster. To do this, we operated the arm and wrist simultaneously to driving. There were certain key points that driving and arm/wrist had to reach before other parts of the program could continue.”
The second stage of competition, Driver-Controlled, also called Tele-Op, allows a team member to use a joystick or video game controller to maneuver the robot on the playing field, again to score points placing blocks in pendulum baskets or on specially-marked scoring zones on the playing field floor.
The third stage, End Game, is played during the final 30 seconds of the match. Using the controller, teams attempt to score bonus points by raising their Alliance flag up a flagpole and raising their robot off the floor using a bridge pull-up bar.
With so much time invested in the design and programming of the robot, the team needed their controller to work precisely as it should, as there would be limited time for test driving. A detailed sketch revealed the thought behind how the controller was programmed, as well as the team’s response to some of the issues that surfaced when it was put to the test:
We decided to switch to two drivers to speed up putting the arm and wrist in the right positions to collect and dump cubes. We could have simply switched those functions to the other controller, but that had some disadvantages:
Need different program in case of single driver (happened at earlier meet when our main driver was sick)
Required communication delays time to make changes in robot operation, such as in case of trying to avoid damage to robot
Flag/Lift Mode Switch
The mode switch button allowed us to do two main things:
Conserve buttons for other operation
Set motors to coast when inactive for lift mode. This prevents the gears for the arm from breaking due to the spool pulling directly against the arm motor gears
When testing, if bluetooth control is still active while trying to control via wifi, motors can make sporatic [sic] and unpredictable movements.
If variables are type-set as intergers, then modified with a function, the program prerounds values to integers. [This was] fixed by setting some variables to float.
After weeks of preparation, the two Union High School teams competing in the FIRST Tech Challenge, Robota Red and Robota White, made the trip to Mt. Vernon for their first competition of the season on November 16, 2013. After their robots were inspected and cleared to compete, it was time for the qualification matches to begin.
One of the components that makes competition in the FIRST Tech Challenge unique can be summed up in one word- alliance. In each of the six qualifying matches each teams plays, they are randomly assigned another team with whom they form an alliance. When the match begins, it doesn’t matter which team in the alliance scores. The points scored by both partners are tallied together as though the two teams are one. Regardless how one team performs, a win for the alliance means each team gets to add a notch in their own individual win column. A team’s record in match play, along with other factors determines their overall rank, with only a set number of teams advancing to comepte in the semi-final and final rounds. And in the FIRST Tech Challenge, it is all about achieving the highest possible rank.
At the conclusion of six qualification matches in Mt. Vernon, both Union teams shared identical 4-2 records. At this point in a FIRST Tech Challenge tournament, teams get to choose who their alliance partner for the remainder of the competition will be, with the highest ranked team getting first pick. There are no restrictions placed on this alliance selection. The top-ranked team is free to select the second ranked team as their partner, if they so choose. When this happens, lower ranked teams can rise to a higher standing, as the teams above them in the rankings are selected as alliance partners. At Mt. Vernon, this proved to be the case for both Union teams, as Robota Red, ranked 9th and Robota White, 10th, both advanced to the semi-final round when the selection of alliances was complete. Ultimately, Robota Red would finish the day as a member of the winning alliance, outscoring the alliance that included their classmates, Robota White, in the final match. It was a hint of what was to come during the 2013-14 season, teams from Union High School competing in the FIRST Tech Challenge, playing to the very end.
In the world of science and mathematics, theories are postulated, tested then revised as necessary. Following its first competition at Mt. Vernon, the team was assessing its robot’s performance and making plans for improvement:
“Problem encountered: Color sensor read white on dusty gray tiles. Changes made: Wrapped metal skirt in electrical tape to prevent reflection. Changed program to look for red line.
Problem encountered: autonomous was so slow that it conflicted with alliance programs. Changes made: left wrist and arm up to drive on ramp & increased motor powers.
Problem encountered: Autonomous only scored 43 (avg. 48 pts.). Changes made: variations of 62 pt. program that are fast enough to add delay if necessary.”
As the FTC season progressed, the two teams from Union High School continued to tweak the design and construction of their robots. A lot of time was also invested in writing and refining the code used to program them, a challenging task indeed. What would seem to be a fairly straightforward task became more complex as the team wrote additional programs that would allow their alliance partners’ programs to work, as well. Robota Red, for example, had as many as twelve different programs by the end of the season that could be used during the autonomous phase of their matches.
By the end of January, both Union teams were rewarded for their efforts, qualifying to compete in the State FTC competition, a first for the school’s robotics program. Because of the rapid growth of FIRST Tech Challenge, thousands of teams began the season with the hope of becoming one of the final 128 teams to compete in the World Championship event, held in St. Louis in late April. With so many teams involved in the program, FTC added another tier of competition to the 2013-14 season, Super Regional tournaments where teams advancing from the State Championship tournaments would compete for the right to go to the World Championship competition.
On February 21, 2014, the two Union teams were among dozens of others vying for a state championship and the opportunity to advance to the next level. Following the completion of the qualifying matches, Robota Red had posted a 4-2 record and was ranked 6th. Meanwhile, Robota White, with a 3-3 record, was ranked 11th. In its first year with multiple teams competing in the FIRST Tech Challenge, not only had the Union robotics program qualified both teams for State, the two would also advance to compete in the semi-final round of their State Championship tournament.
The semi-final round would prove to be unkind for Robota White’s alliance, unable to win a match in the best of three format. Robota Red’s alliance, though, easily won their semi-final match. With a state championship on the line, once again, a Union team would be playing to the end in an FTC competition. It also meant that Union would send a team to compete in the inaugural FIRST Tech Challenge North Super Regional Tournament.
While Robota Red’s alliance was denied a win in the championship match, they advanced to compete in the Super Regional tournament, conveniently hosted by the University of Iowa and Rockwell Collins April 3-5 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, against 71 other teams from a 13 state region. Collectively, the teams competing at the Super Regional represented the top seven percent of the FTC teams from their states.
In a span of less than four years, Bruce Rempe has seen the robotics program he founded, with the help of numerous volunteers who dedicate countless hours to the project, grow, thrive and compete at a very high level. As he watched Robota Red score well at the Super Regional, though not enough to advance further in the competition, he acknowledged that, for many of the Super Regional teams, robotics is the end-all, be-all activity of their high school lives. This is a far cry from Robota Red who, just one week earlier, had most of its team members involved in the school’s musical production of Ragtime.
“We are so fortunate at Union to have so many quality programs kids can get involved in,” he said, referencing the district’s high level of athletics, music, chorus, art, speech and drama programs. And because of the school’s relatively small size, students have the opportunity to experience as many of them as they want, if they so choose.
“And that,” he said with a smile, “is a very good thing.”
For a photo gallery and video slideshow of the FTC North Super Regional competition, logon to theprogressreview.co.