Do you have what it takes to design and build a robot, form alliances and compete in a medieval-themed sporting event?
If you haven’t experienced FRC – First Robotics Competition, I would urge you to check it out. Anyone interested in technology, engineering and good, clean, competitive fun will enjoy it. So, as we are one of many sponsors to a local youth robotics team, I decided to drop by to check it out and document my experience.
John Sidorowicz, our VP of Sales at Xcentric Mold & Engineering, had passed me along the main contact info for Team Crevolution; one team of many competing in FRC.
FRC is a group made up of thousands of students and mentors who team up to build robots and compete in an arena. It’s mission? To “inspire young people to be science and technology leaders, by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership “
This year, the game is called “Stronghold“, a medieval-themed event designed not for the athletic but for the athletic of mind.
I got in contact with Wade Sorensen, a lead mentor of team Crevolution whose name means “Creative Revolution”. I explained that I was interested in seeing what this was all about so we made plans to meet at the next competition at a local High School. He said his PR team was excited to meet me. Now, I wasn’t sure what to expect exactly, but I was a little surprised they had a PR team.
As it turns out, Crevolution is a team of about 30 or so students and mentors. They are one of hundreds in the state of Michigan and about 42 teams that were set to compete for the weekend. The team is divided into subteams:
- Design and Engineering
- Public Relations
- Business and Finance
- Documents and Submission
With my two daughters in tow, (as much as I was looking to satisfy my own curiosity, I secretly wanted them to get some exposure to this as well), I headed out and arrived at 11:15am…opening ceremonies were just wrapping up. Team Crevolution was scheduled to battle at 11:30.
When I entered the school, I saw a sea of people (mostly teens) in the front courtyard. The gymnasium, where the arena was assembled, held hundreds more people in the bleachers. Since I had never experienced this before, I initially thought that I could have been in the wrong building; it was as if they had gathered to watch the state finals of a boys High School basketball game. I didn’t realize a robotics competition could garner as much or more enthusiasm as high school sports.
I quickly took a seat on the bleachers to let it soak in for a moment. Match volunteers were getting the arena ready for the first battle of the day. Music started over the PA. It was Queen’s “We Will Rock You”. Stomp, stomp, clap. Stomp, stomp, clap, it went again. And again. You could feel the thumping of stomping feet through the bleachers. Was I sure I didn’t wander into a sporting event? Nope. It was definitely a robotics competition.
I looked around some more. Team spirit was in abundance. I noticed entire blocks of color in the stands opposite me; the shirts of students, team members, mentors and supporters, all there to support their team.
There was no shortage of signs and banners either. And then there were the costumes; funny hats, chicken costumes and wacky hair. In fact, much of the crowd had donned something that day that, I’m guessing, they wouldn’t usually wear. Heh, I even saw one kid in a full suit of chainmail armor. Not even joking.
After looking around a bit, I finally texted Wade to let him know I was there. He said he’d meet me just outside the gym. Thirty seconds later, he spotted me through the crowd. He introduced himself and one of the PR girls, Tori Motloch. She was wearing a funny hat. To the astute fan, it was the Sorting Hat from Harry Potter. I didn’t actually realize that at first, I found out later…but yeah, it was a nice touch.
After a brief exchange with Wade about the event, I could tell right away that he loved this stuff. He suggested we go to the pit for a quick tour there and then back to the gym for their first battle.
What’s the pit? “The pit works like NASCAR works…it’s where we bring the bot after every match for repairs or to change anything.” said Tori.
I toured the pit and was introduced to Celine Schlueter, head of the PR department. She helped me learn more about the game and the robots (bots for short) that make up the players in Stronghold.
Stronghold is played by two alliances of three teams each and set in an arena that’s divided in half; the Red alliance on one side and the Blue alliance on the other. Each alliance is made up of three, built-from-scratch robots designed, engineered, built and programmed by one of the student teams. In all regulation matches, alliance selection is random. No student team will ever know which other student team will make up their alliance of three bots for any given battle.
Each of the bots are engineered and designed differently, according to the goals the team decides to achieve. Some are designed to be better at getting past defensive obstacles and others are designed to be better at scoring. Being able to strategize with other teams by utilizing each teams strengths brings this competition to a higher level. Where mechanical or engineering prowess will only get you so far, an added level of teamwork is essential to place well.
Along the center dividing line lay six volley-ball sized balls called boulders, evenly spaced…like in dodgeball. In both zones, Red and Blue, opposite each other on the farthest end, sits a tower. Each tower has three large round holes (goal) at top and two holes (goals) at bottom. Not far in front of each tower is a straight line of five different defensive obstacles. The object? Grab a boulder from the center of the arena, overcome a defensive obstacle and put the boulder into any of the goals in the tower. Points are awarded for breaching defenses and putting the boulder in the tower.
In the last 20 seconds of the match, bots can attempt to scale the tower. The most points after 2 minutes 30 seconds, wins.
Every year the game changes…the objectives change and the arena itself changes. Understanding the rules is really the first step in FRC. The team will meet to go over the rules of the game and then they will strategize on the best way to build their bot.
Wade explains, “You’re given what the game is, but we do spend the first day understanding the game, how you score points, how you get penalties…and then we go into the second day where we strategize as far as how do we want to go about playing the game, how do we want to score, what do we do…so we create our goals, we create our stretch goals. And then in day 3, we begin brainstorming for the kind of mechanisms we want to do, we go into engineering PUGH analysis, a logical decision making matrix to take those brainstorming ideas, understand how they’ll work against all those features we need to accomplish and how easy or hard those features would make for us to manufacture. From there, we can narrow down our design and we came up with our final design.”
Celine supplies me with an operational manual. It’s as professional a manual as you’d get from any store bought appliance you might buy. It featured operating and safety instructions, specifications and bill of materials on all the parts, design integrations, etc. I was impressed. It was well put together. Crevolution named their bot Achilles, after the Greek god of war.
Achilles was getting prepped to go on the arena floor. It was time to head back to the gym.
I sat high in the stands among the 30 or so Crevolution-ists who were nice enough to make room for me and my daughters. Their battle was to begin shortly. Crevolution is team #2851. It’s a number assigned sequentially to each new team since its inception in 1989. So yes, there is a team #1. I saw team numbers as high as the 5,000’s.
On the arena floor, I spot the numbers indicated on the Red skirt (outfitted onto the bot to denote team alliance). Two other team bots sat next to Crevolutions, also with a Red skirts and the three blue bots sat across from them. All six student teams were readying their bots. There were a few more minutes yet, but that didn’t stop the chants from the bleachers or the loud music and line dancing. The Macarana was now playing…who doesn’t line dance to that? You are doing it in your head right now, aren’t you? 🙂
As we sat and waited, Celine explained to me that they scout every team. Scout?
“It’s a three-on-three game. When you get to the top 8 (unlike the random alliance assignment from regulation play), you get to pick who you’re with. Throughout the day, teams will scout other teams, because if they make the top 8, they want to know who they want to team with.” added Tori.
They have an app and some of the students from the team will sit in the bleachers and enter information on the bots in the arena. They can record what drive train each bot has, what sort of offensive capabilities it was built with and what sort of defenses it can more easily beat. This information is all downloaded into a database that can be accessed for reference later in the day or in later competitions. With so many teams and so many bots, it would be difficult to recognize or remember them all. This app will help them decide which other team they would work best with if they make the top 8.
The match begins with an abrupt 3…2…1. For the first 15 seconds of each match, all bots run on “autopilot”. The bot must be programmed for those first few moments to do all the things the controller would do before he gains control. It was just another great facet of this competition to include all aspects of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). An edge in the programming skillset will give the team a good head start.
Crevolutions bot starts out fast. It easily maneuverers to pick-up a boulder and quickly turns toward the enemies defenses. Achilles lines up one of the defenses it was built to defeat: the portcullis; a gate that the bot must lift and go under. Achilles overcomes the obstacle with ease. With the boulder in its grasp, it zips over to the lower goal of the tower and blasts it through. Score! Time to replenish.
As Achilles retreats back and through another obstacle to retrieve a boulder, it stops suddenly. A few seconds go by without movement. It seemed to be dead in the water. More time later, it still hadn’t moved. Achilles was unresponsive.
It’s not an uncommon occurrence actually. Bots break…some even lose parts on the battle arena. But, in the end, that’s why everyone is there…to design, build and learn. Crevolutions Red alliance loses. But it didn’t matter much because not only were there many more matches to come, it was really fun! It was time to head back to the pit to see what went wrong.
It was there I met Joe Cox, lead mechanical mentor. He knew the problem right away. A poor solder joint. It must have been jarred loose going over some of the defensive obstacles. He explained that they were in the process of swapping “brains”. Each team can have up to two bots, though only one can be used to compete. The other is the practice bot. Joe needed to swap the competition bot brains with the practice bot brains. That just sounded cool. Thanks Joe.
And to show that FRC is not just about the competition but also about learning and developing skills, there is what’s called the Chairman’s Award. It’s an award given to the best team presentation on what the students learned and how they got there.
It was time to go. My girls and I had a great time meeting with Wade, Tori, Celine and Joe. Thank you!
From what I saw in only an hour and a half, FRC is a fantastic program that I know Xcentric Mold & Engineering is proud to be a team sponsor for. I found it to be a perfect amalgam of math, science, design, engineering, teamwork and cooperation in a sports-style event.
Anyone who has interest in any of the above should check out FRC. Or, for the younger kids, there are junior high school programs as well as elementary school programs that will begin teaching these skills using Legos.
“This is the high school level, but it’s actually playable from kindergarten level on. So they have a Junior First Lego League where it’s real basic using Legos. Then they have First Lego League which is still with Legos but a little more advanced. As soon as they come to FTC, which is middle school, First Tech Challenge, we actually mentor them and help give them practice. This (what we are watching now – FRC) is the highest level. Freshman through Seniors in High School. The robots are up to the max weight of 125lbs.” Celine said.
I later found out that Crevolution made it to the final 8 that day, but lost to the eventual champion. A great start to the season with more events to come. But also, they won the Industrial Design Award for “form and function in an efficiently designed machine that effectively addresses the game challenge”.
For more information on FRC click here: http://www.firstinspires.org/
You can also check out Crevolution’s team page here: http://crevolutionrobotics.org/
And finally, FRC always welcomes volunteers, if you are interested in helping with your local event, find out how: http://www.firstinspires.org/ways-to-help/volunteer