I have to start out by saying that many people extended well wishes for our Regional performance. I have to also say, I wonder if internet Good Lucks are not as effective as one might hope.
For those of you who never chase down links, a FIRST Robotics Regional is a four day event. Wednesday night you can load in to your pit; but no work is done. Thursday is Pit and Practice Day. Friday is Opening Ceremonies and Qualification Matches. And Saturday is the remainder of Qualification Matches, and the Elimination rounds, and then Awards.
On Thursday, we had an action plan that involved adding a few parts, doing some testing and getting onto the practice matches. We adjusted that plan on the fly, as the modifications to the robot took more effort than we had anticipated. Tactical error right there. We worked up until the pits closed at 8PM, and had a detailed plan of attack for Friday morning to get us into the game. At this point, we had a significant pneumatic leak that prevented us from starting the match with Bang! The Catapult in launching mode, we had untested autonomous code, and the Field Team had no practice with Whatnot.
Friday, we were the third match queued. The field has on set of teams (three robots to an alliance, two alliances – red and blue. That’s why you’ll sometimes see Whatnot in red livery and sometimes in blue), there is an on-deck queuing station, and a second queuing station. So we had to get our robot to the 3rd position before the opening ceremonies at 9 AM, and couldn’t get anything done in the short period before, other than firing it up, getting the most recent code into its brain and putting in a fresh battery.
The first match was a debacle. We had attached the bumpers with nylon bolts to save weight, and while our tests in the shop were fine, this game was unexpectedly violent and one of our bumpers was ripped off in the match so it had to be stopped. We were allowed to reset, but couldn’t get the bumper back on and had to remove the robot from the field.
Back to the pit. Replaced the bumper hardware. And then it’s time to replace the battery and get back out to the field. This time, a plexiglass side panel was shattered by an impact, and the wireless access point was disconnected by the impact, leaving our robot dead without communication. Back to the pit. Work on the pneumatics leak.
Fixed the panel, and re-wired the WAP. By then, it’s time to get back in queue. Adjusted the autonomous code. But the robot is unable to communicate with the Field Management System. I know what’s wrong (because we did this in the shop), we had wired the WAp with polarity reversed. We could have swapped the connectors, but the refs wouldn’t let us. I had them let us unplug the power, because the D-Link gets HOT when the wires are crossed and we didn’t want a fire; but for the third match in a row, Whatnot was DOA. Back to the pit – fix the wires and work on the pneumatics leak.
Our schedule for Friday was aggravating. Roughly an hour between matches, but with 10 minutes of queuing, a five minute match, five minutes to clear the field and get back to the pit we had little time for work before we had to get a field battery installed and get back in queue. By lunchtime, we were getting back on track, but we only had ten scheduled Qualification matches, and had wasted most of them. We still had a pneumatics leak.
Oh, yeah, and as Field Coach, it was my responsibility to put together the drive team and a Human Player. we have a small team, and the member I had wanted to have as HP wound up on a trip to Spain this week. So, when it came time to go out for the first match, I had to select from the people who were there; I wanted one of our pit crew, but hate to double up a crucial role like that so I was forced to go with HH. Let me tell you about HH. He is clumsy and entitled. He is good at schmoozing and taking credit (his LinkedIn profile lists him as Team Captain although he has never even come close to being that). He has raised a decent amount of money for the team, but he has screwed up every assembly job I have given him. He drops things and has the attention span of a squirrel that has just consumed a four-pack of Red Bull. Another tactical error.
For this game, the responsibility of the human player is to re-introduce a Game Piece (“tater) into the game after the current one has been scored. This is called a cycle. The inbounding HP needs to be watching the game, and when the current tater is scored, he needs to scurry to the back of the driver stations to get a new one as soon as the pedestal is lit; he cannot touch the tater until the pedestal is lit.
I talked with HH before the match, he assured me that he knew the rules, but then followed up by asking me what the high goal score is worth; obviously he had not read the rules. In the first match, as soon as our robot was carried off the field, he though he was going back to the pit, we had to drag him back to say HE was still in the game. In the second match, he ran back to the pedestal and put his hand on the ball before it was lit, then when two of us yelled at him claimed he hadn’t put his hand on it when we both saw him. And in the third match, when our robot was dead, he sat in the inbound position, folded arms, watching the game without paying attention to what he should be doing; necessitating every one of the alliance partners SCREAMING at him to get a new tater and inbound it. When we got back to the pit, I told him with gritted teeth to give me his Field Team credential. In three matches, he demonstrated in front of all 60 teams that we had a HP that could not be relied upon, trashing our team’s chances with other alliances.
By the end of the day Friday, we were ranked at 58th out of 60 teams. While on Thursday night, I posted a long, detailed action plan to the team’s FB page, on Friday night I managed three words: “my feet hurt”.
Saturday dawned bright and cold and NCAA-ey. Have I mentioned that March Madness games were being played across the street from teh Robot Games? Wacky. We were scheduled for the SECOND match this time, so before we even got into the pit, we had the queuing team looking for us to line up. We got the robot into line, swapped the battery, and then were told we couldn’t even join our team in the stands for today’s opening ceremonies, but had to sit in the queuing lines. I did not see BB, who had been our HP for the remainder of Friday, so made an emergency decision to activate Ransom, our senior pit student, out of the stands via cell phone and have him join us.
We still had radio communication problems, and after our bleak showing, volunteers stopped by our pit to help us diagnose our problems; it is possible that all the abuse our WAP took, it has gone all wonky inside. But today, we got some field time, and swapped out the catapult cradle arms for a different pair. We still had a pneumatics leak, but it wasn’t as bad as it had been and we decided that we would keep the robot running in queue to keep the system charged.
Next to last match, and the communications dropped out again. Whatnot, dead on the field again. We borrowed a WAP for our last match. We still had never fired the catapult in action. We decided that we would again keep the system charged during wait times, and load a tater on Bang The Catapult regardless. we didn’t know where it would go, but dammit we were gonna launch it there. We lied to our alliance partners and told them we had it targeted. Otherwise, we were in the inbound position, designated to take the ball from the HP and deliver it to an alliance partner for an assist. (this year’s game maximizes point values for working in cooperation with alliance partners).
The bell rang, and autonomous started; Whatnot slid sideways, forward into the end zone; the yoke triggered down, and Bang the Catapulted fired, launching the tater completely over the goal. Didn’t matter; the crowd went wild, our team members were on their feet screaming, and we could hear it on the opposite side of the field. And then my drive crew went to work. They had managed to practice ball intake and deliver, and my two guys were getting good at working together. One working the drive, and the other working the mechanisms. Communications were flawless, and we did at least four inbounds and assists, maybe five. I lost count. In between inbounding, my driver worked to harass their shooters, then scampered back to the inbound station for the next cycle. And at the end of the day, our alliance had scored 209 points, the third highest total in the Qualification rounds.
This was a very tough Regional. We had many gremlins, at least one Ghost In The Machine, and our own stupidity all working against us, in what is widely recognized as one of the most highly competitive Regionals in the country. But:
- We finished with a superb match
- we fired up our team by using Bang The Catapult in gameplay.
- we spent the rest of Saturday refining our targeting, catapult configuration, and autonomous code to the point where we have a highly repeatable situation
- the Field Team now has practice, experience, and camaraderie.
- The team instituted 5-S procedures in the TigerShop and the pit.
- Year over year improvement in our Chairman’s Award
- we have a very small team, but the team members we have are very involved and invested
- we made a huge step forward with our mentors
- we made a huge step forward on Critical Path scheduling
- Huge improvements in processes
- New training and tests for our team members to bring them up to speed.
- Unprecedented levels of design and craftsmanship on our robot.
- Going to a second Regional.
So, for the first time we planned, prioritized, and budgeted for a second regional [$4000 plus travel, meals and lodging] and given what we had handed to us this week, the value of going to multiple regionals is very apparent. As rough as this one was, Whatnot is now performing the way we wanted. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised, that in our practice on Friday and Saturday, we had several untested systems – transition rails, catapult cradle, retraction cylinders, and trigger — that had never been tested in a fully assembled position, and THEY ALL WORKED. That’s not something that happens in engineering design.
In some ways, this was not one of our best Regional performances. But in many other ways, this was ultimately quite successful.
Maybe internet Good Lucks are, at the end of the day, much more effective than anyone ever thought, because they apparently extend backward in time. So, thank you, thank you all, because Karma is a weirdo.
And at the end of a long intense four days of work and crises and fun, I am heartened by two things. The Chairman’s Award judges gave us feedback saying “Your team is growing by leaps and bounds!” Tiger bounds, undoubtedly. And then, after our last match of the day, members of the two teams on our alliance came by to tell us ” We don’t care what the standings say, your team is tragically and radically underrated”
So, as a reward for reading all of this, here are photos of the gig:
Feel free to give us Internet Good Wishes and strange Karma Points to us for the Chicago Regional.