After winning the world championships, Brighton High School’s robotics team, the TechnoDogs, is going into crunch time in preparation for their next season of FIRST robotics competition. Amanda Whitley, the co-captain of the TechnoDogs and the ambassador lead, says that the team is currently in the fourth week of the build process, with about a month left until the first competition.
Construction of the robots themselves is well underway, though according to strategy lead James Oginsky, “We’re a bit behind schedule…we’re still heavily prototyping.” Despite the time setback, which was later confirmed by Whitley, progress is being made into the systems needed for this year’s game.
The competition game for last year was called Destination: Deep Space and was sponsored by Boeing. The game involved loading dodgeball “cargo” into rockets and cargo ships, secured by hatch panels, all of which were moveable game elements. The robots would end by returning to a “habitat” and lifting themselves to higher platforms for more points.
This year’s game, Infinite Recharge, is sponsored by Star Wars and will be more of an aim-based challenge. The robots will be tasked with collecting dodgeballs, identified as “power cells” this time, and precisely launching them into a port on the other side of the game field. As the game ends, the robots have to move to a central area, where they have the option to grab and hang onto a bar called the “shield generator switch,” with additional points to be earned for keeping the bar balanced. There’s also an added element involving a colored wheel to turn in specified ways, either spun a certain amount of times or to a specific color.
A particular aspect they are focusing on is their aiming systems. It’s important for the robots in this particular game to be able to get a consistently precise shot on the port at any point in the game. Whitley says the goal is to make it so the robot has “the whole field in its database, being able to track its location and line up accurately at any location we place it.”
Another important component that the team is focusing on is their drive train, which is the technical term for the way the robot moves. Traditionally, FIRST competition robots have used a “tank drive,” which treats two parallel rows usually consisting of 3 grouped wheels that can only move in the same direction. This type of movement has strong pushing power but lacks quick rotation and mobility.
For the last two years, the TechnoDogs have been using a swerve drive, which allows all wheels to rotate independently, regardless of the rotation of the robot itself, meaning it can move forward, backward, side-to-side, diagonally, or even somewhere in the middle. According to Oginsky, “a lot of teams have been making the transition [from tank drive to swerve drive]. We made the transition two years ago on Power Up, and that was the first year we made it to Worlds.”
The major downside with the drive train is the ease of control. “We have forefronted the problem by holding many drive practices to get comfortable with swerve drive. This may seem like an easy task, yet swerve is considered one of the hardest drive trains to control, for it can move in any direction without rotating its front. Just like any other year on a team, many of our most experienced teammates graduated out, so we have led huge training sessions for our incoming students in the fall and start of winter,” Whitley said.
Due to this, a lot of the pressure of the competition falls onto the drive team. “During the build season, their main job is to prepare for the competition season. They’re the operators of the robot,” Oginsky said.
And, with the added pressure of being winners from the previous year, more emphasis is placed on the selection process. “We have them complete multiple obstacle courses, speed trials, and listening exercises while driving last year’s robot ‘Bot Ross’ in front of a group of non-biased judges,” said Whitley.
Skills required include “strong listening skills and thick skin. You must be able to perform at your best in front of thousands and not crack under any type of pressure…”
Despite the importance of drive team’s in-the-moment finesse, many other similarly sized groups have to work together to organize the complex parts that go into robotics at the competition level. In an attempt to list them all, strategy and scouting teams member Hayden Spink says “electrical, programming, drive team, strategy, scouting, business, marketing, PR…There’s a lot more than just building the robot and programming it to work. There are many aspects to the robotics team, and for that, we need a diverse set of teams in order to handle everything.”
There are even teams beyond the ones Spink has mentioned, such as finance, build, and ambassador teams. All fulfill specialized roles within the network of the robotics process.
The abstract communication of so many different groups shows a dedication to a potential second win in a row, but even the dedication of an entire team is rarely sufficient. An aspect of planning is scouting out other teams, searching for the strengths and weaknesses of their robots and strategies. Spink goes into further detail, saying, “The scouting team collects data on other teams when they play matches against our team, and we also collect data from pretty much any competition match…we also play these ‘mock matches’ in the strategy team, where we pretend to play a competitive match using board game pieces.”
Oginsky clarifies, “during competition season, I deal with scouting to figure out what the other teams are like at the competition and what would be the best course of action if we should end up wanting to try to build an alliance with two of the other teams…analysis of how to work with them and how to fight them…[we won Worlds] with the assistance of three other teams.”
Proper choice of, and cooperation with, these other allied teams in paramount to hauling in another victory.
With tensions running high and progress lagging, our native robotics team is buckling down and tackling every facet of the struggle ahead. The TechnoDogs have a plan of action and, like all Bulldog teams, quitting just isn’t part of their programming.