2014 – A Year In Robots

2014 – A Year In Robots

2014 was an excellent year, if not fraught with a wide assortment of challenges:  I made something on the order of five different robots, became a world champion and even wrote a book.  For a change, I thought it might be fun to make a post summarizing 2014, so without further ado…let’s go! ;D

Ringing in the new year (2014) with deadlines!

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Fixing robots: The best way to start the year!

Well, 2014 didn’t start very happily.  On new year’s day (that is, January 1st, 2014) I was locked within the wonderfully messy confines of my fabulous room, wiring and debugging our first robot that year – Ironwill – in preparation for his second event which was mere days away.  Despite our team (FTC #$982 Cafe Bot) doing well at our first event, Ironwill himself was a total fail.

Ironwill doing the only thing he could - hang out.
Ironwill doing the only thing he could – hang out.

Sure enough, Ironwill had trouble at our next qualifier.  He kinda died.  It was sort of like “Field: 1 – Ironwill: 0.”  It wasn’t good.  We bombed the event, failed to qualify, and only had two more chances left to qualify for the next level – one of which wasn’t even in our state.  Did I mention our last event was only a month away and we had a mere five days before the previously mentioned out-of-state event?  Clearly, we were screwed.

Stare defeat in the face and say “Challenge Accepted.”

Well, we would have been screwed.  If we gave up.

But I really don’t believe in the whole no-win/you’re screwed scenario.  It just doesn’t seem fun.  And thusly, Ri5D – Robot in Five Days – was born.  In a last-ditch effort, my team and I launched a social media campaign across all of our sites, documenting our journey across five days of robot hell fun.  Our mission?  To make a completely new robot that can actually compete and win.  In five days.  And I mean completely new, from scratch and with no re-used components. B3BX1 BX2B13By the time those five days were over, we’d done what we were told was impossible – created a fully working conceptual design and turned it into a competition-ready robot…in five days.  Our robot, named Fluttershy (in honor of her fallen comrade, Iron Will), went on to compete in our last out of state competition a mere day after being finished.

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Fluttershy’s broken arm – it turns out we didn’t have nearly enough structural reinforcement on it…

Ok, so Fluttershy immediately broke her arm at the competition and was out of service for the remainder of the event.  Darn.  We now had only one final chance to qualify in our home state in Kansas City.  But that didn’t stop us, that just motivated the heck out of us.

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B24 At the hotel with Fluttershy the morning of our, potentially, last event.

After a week of intense building, testing, modifying and breaking, we had finally finished fixing Fluttershy and improving her for what was to be our final event of the season – our last chance to qualify for the next level.  Having been through two robots, five thousand combined hours of work, more money than we care to say, and nothing but epic failures, we were preparing ourselves for the very real possibility of defeat.  But that didn’t stop us.

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B6 Posing with our alliance teammates, the Red Hot Techie Peppers (left) and the Oddly Charged Particles (right) after winning the final match of the day.

 When we got to the competition, we were immediately paired up against two of the best teams in the region, and our partner was disabled due to a programming fault that occurred during inspection.  Ok.  That’s…not good.  And then the match started – Fluttershy’s first proper match.  Having improved both the arm and the drivetrain with new ratios and gearing, she took off at full speed and flew (well, not literally).  All those painful hours payed off.  All those tears, worries and…expenses.  That was her first victory of the day, going 120 points to 0.  Throughout the day, this continued, culminating in our team being the captain of the winning alliance, and the recipients of the Inspire award.  Undefeated.

This victory taught us something important – never give up in the face of certain defeat and adversity, because who knows what will happen if you give it your all.  Nothing pays off quite as well as hard work, dedication, an unwavering spirit and skipping all your schoolwork.

Always identify the problem before solving it.

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Clockwise from top left: Rainbow Cra– er, Dash, CAD designs, Rainbow Dash’s frame next to Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash in a broken state and, finally, a cute doggie crying at the travesty that was Rainbow Dash.

No, seriously.  Don’t run off trying to fix a problem you don’t understand – or you’ll end up crying like the cute little doggie in the picture above.

Prior to attending the Northern Super Regional in Iowa, which our team qualified for using Fluttershy, we decided to…mmm…”improve”…her by making a third, final robot for the season: Rainbow Dash.  Now known, more aptly, as Rainbow Crash.

That ended in tears.

We had originally thought that Fluttershy’s design was defective, exposing her electronics to the large amounts of electro-static that builds up on the playing field during the matches.  This, we believed, was the cause of her intermittent disconnects and relatively poor performance at the state championships compared to her undefeated streak in Kansas City.  Oh man, were we wrong.

It turns out her motor controllers (the things that make her wheels spin and arm move), also known as the crappy TETRIX-PITSCO Motor Controller modules required by FIRST, were the real source of the issue: they were defective, but weren’t giving any indication besides occasionally, and quite silently, failing on us.  Of course, we didn’t figure this out until mid-super regional, when Rainbow Dash started acting up in the same ways that Fluttershy did.  Oh, all my sad face.

As a result, we were forced to spend the remainder of our season – including worlds – competing with a sub-par robot that, while much prettier than Fluttershy in some respect, wasn’t nearly as competitive on the playing field.

The moral of this sad story is to always carefully identify a problem before trying to fix it, instead of jumping to the most “convenient” conclusion (like we did).

The World Champions

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Clockwise from top-left: Team Cafe Bot receiving the inaugural 2014 FTC Northern Super Regional Inspire Award, Being presented with my Dean’s List certification by the CEO of Monster Cable at the FIRST World Championships, Team Cafe Bot posing heroically and, finally, team Cafe Bot receiving the 2014 FIRST World Championship Inspire award.

The combined seasons of both my FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) and FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) teams culminated in becoming internationally recognized.

My FTC team, which I’ve captained for three years (and is now retired to pave the way for our new FRC team) ended their season as the recipients of the 2013 – 2014 FIRST Tech Challenge World Championship Inspire Award Winners (3rd place).  This makes us one of the top three teams in the entire world, out of thousands of other teams!

My FRC team, on the other hand, didn’t exactly go to the world championship per se.  Instead, I did, as one of a mere hundred Dean’s List Award Winners.  These students, nominated by their teammates and mentors, represent the absolute best of the best student leaders and roboticists in the FIRST program, boasting outstanding leadership, communications and technical skills.  I’m immensely proud to now number myself amongst these students.

My first non-competition robot

B53 BX60In a last-ditch effort to prevent myself from going into robotics withdrawal over the summer (the off-season of pretty much all of my robotics programs), I began converting an old Starbucks coffeemaker into something infinitely cooler…a Coffeemecha!

Originally started as a joke when my mom asked for us to turn an old coffeemaker into a robot, the Coffeemecha rapidly evolved into a high-tech test bed that I use to try out all kinds of new electronics and software.

Today, the Coffeemecha is used throughout our community for outreach events and demonstrations.  But not only that, it’s my first robot to run on my all-new universal control system – more on that later!

A Published Author

B41Finally, 2014 came to a close with the publishing of my book, Mastering Leap Motion, just over a month ago.

I was originally asked to write Mastering Leap Motion eight or so months ago, just as the FRC competition season was ramping up.  At first, I was hesitant to accept – being a student as well as the leader of multiple teams meant I had little time leftover.  But I said to heck with it, and did it anyway.  And oh, am I glad I did.  I learned all kinds of things throughout the writing process – from working with editors to making usable graphs.  I even built some new friendships both domestically and overseas, which is always great.

As if writing the book itself wasn’t good enough, though, I managed to get someone truly amazing to write the foreword – none other than Dr. Woodie Flowers himself, co-founder of the FIRST program and Pappalardo Professor Emeritus of MIT!  Truly, it’s an honor to have had him be a part of my first-ever published title.

 Looking forward to 2015!

So with 2014 behind us, who knows what 2015 has in store?  Well, we’ll certainly have more on that soon…this year is off to a running start already!

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