FIRST Robotics Competition

 Our little rookie robot team from Woodlawn High School (yes, THAT Woodlawn – like the movie) made it as far as the semifinals in the FRC (FIRST Robotics Competition) Rocket City Regional at the end of March in Huntsville. We were the ONLY rookie team to be asked to join an alliance for the playoff rounds, beating out a number of veteran teams to earn that honor. The playoffs are double elimination rounds, and we won our quarter final matches in a tie breaker (2 -1), and made it through to the semifinals. We got knocked out (0-2) by the alliance with the number 1 and 2 ranked team on it.

We broke (and rapidly repaired) our BLM (Boulder Launching Mechanism) at least 6 times – so we were like a little NASCAR pit crew. The students are the only ones allowed to drive the robot – named pinta. Our student drivers earned street cred during the qualification rounds by scoring points with our robot in autonomous mode, scoring points by shooting “low” goals, and breaking down defenses (crossing obstacles). But mostly they earned “street cred” through strategy, which was to thwart the automatic “lock on target” function of other robots by bumping or nudging them right as they acquired a “lock” – especially that of team 179 – who were our next door neighbors in the pit area. They were a very nice and helpful team with a 5-year veteran driver and 20 year veteran team (lower numbered teams are the veteran teams). We actually caused team 179 to have their lowest scoring round during the whole competition, and that gave us “buzz”.

We were on Alliance 5 (team 2815, team 456, and us… team 6158) – and the winners were Alliance 1.

All teams competed in 10 qualification matches of various random alliances – there were 85 qualification rounds over a day and a half.

We were lucky to be chosen at Alliance Selection – we get selected about 12:30 in.

After the two losses in semi-finals – our alliance was out.

A Little History

FIRST is an acronym – For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology – it is an organization that was founded by Dean Kamen – the man who invented the Segway. Their mission is to inspire young people’s interest and participation in science and technology. They work with all ages of students beginning with FLL Jr. (FIRST Lego League Junior – grades K-3), then FLL (First Lego League – grades 4-8), FTC (First Tech Challenge – grades 7-12), and finally FRC (FIRST Robotics Competition – grades 9-12).

RMM got involved with Woodlawn High School last fall when their science teacher, Dr. Chanel Douglas, asked us if they could use our Shape Lab to build a robot for the BEST robotics competition (sponsored by UAB School of Engineering). When that was over, the students asked if there was another robotics competition in which they could participate. Dr. Douglas knew of FIRST, and she knew it was EXPENSIVE – the entrance fee alone is $6000, that doesn’t cover the cost of transportation, hotels, meals, and other incidentals. She applied for a grant from the FIRST Inspires organization itself and was granted $6000 spread over 2 years – $4000 the first year, and $2000 the second. She and other mentors scrambled to get donations and raise funds. WIAT 42 came through with a $1000 grant for their “One Class at a Time” program.

A team of 6 students rode to Huntsville for the kickoff event in January where they learned the theme of the competition – named FIRST Stronghold. In a worldwide broadcast, teams learned that they were to lay siege to castles with their robots, earning points by crossing outer defenses such as a portcullis, drawbridge, cheval de frise, Sally ports, and a “low bar” that robots must go under (robots doing the limbo). They also earned points by launching “boulders” (10-ounce foam athletic balls) through open windows, and finally, in the last 20 seconds of the 2 minute  45 second match, scaling the castle walls themselves. Wow! That was quite a number of technical challenges to overcome.

The team started with just 2 mentors, but soon grew to 7 mentors – Dr. Douglas from Woodlawn and 6 RMM members. The rule book was 300+ pages. The learning curve was steep. The work was complicated and tiring. The students had many commitments that competed for their time. A team motto was often heard – “Teamwork makes the dream work”. After 6 weeks of work, the team had to “bag and tag” our robot, as regional competitions began all over the world the next week. However, our Rocket City Regional was still 6 more weeks away. What was our team to do in the interim? Well, build a second robot, of course. We assembled a second robot and took advantage of a 30 pound “allowance” rule, in which teams can bring in an additional 30 pounds of manufactured items to attach to their robot. So, we build a BLM (Boulder Launching Mechanism). It was a sort of metal basket attached to arms that raise and lower, with two flywheels at the outer edge. The arm lowered and the flywheels rolled slowly in one direction to acquire the boulders from the ground, then raised up, spun the flywheels at full speed in the opposite direction, and a fraction of a second later, a solenoid pushed the boulder into the flywheels, launching it in the direction it was aimed. When all the parts were assembled, it came in at 27 pounds, just under the legal limit. Then it was time to load up the cars, trailer, and buses and the rest is in the books (and on YouTube)!