High school robotics teams descended upon St. Louis this weekend for the FIRST championships. In the event’s first year in the Gateway City, FIRST Robotics Championship teams competed in the Logo Motion event: building robots capable of grabbing delicate inflatable tubes and hanging them on pegs, sometimes autonomously. As usual, the student engineers came up with some wild and amazing designs.
Logo Motion was the name of the game for the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) in 2011. High school students from around the world built 120-pound robots that could create the FIRST logo—a triangle, a circle and a square, in that order—in the form of inflatable balloons in those shapes, which the bots hung on metal pegs at the ends of the rectangular playing field.
The students competed in alliances of three teams each, with an alliance in red taking on an alliance decorated in blue. For the opening stage of each match, the robots had to operate autonomously and attempt to hang a yellow circular balloon. Then, in the second stage, the court became a frenzied battle royal as the student drivers assumed control of their machines, trying to pick up the inflatable with robot claws and hang as many triangle-circle-square logos as possible. Finally, in the last 10 seconds of the match, the teams deployed their minibots—robots about the size of toaster that raced up to the top of a metal pole to score extra points.
The RoboWranglers (Team 148)
“We wanted it to be simple. But we wanted it to be a little intimidating too.” That’s how junior Keri Porter from Team 148 out of Greenville, Texas—the RoboWranglers—explained her team’s design. The powder-coated aluminum frame reflecting red LEDs makes this a mean-looking machine.
The RoboWranglers (Cont.)
The RoboWranglers built in a transmission that lets them switch between the wheels and the traction track. When the team plays defensively and tries to block opposing robots from their goal, the RoboWranglers switch to the track. “If you try to push it from the side,” Porter says, “it’s not going anywhere.”
This speedy bot helped Team 1503 from Niagara Falls, Ontario, and their two alliance members to a victory in their division. They advanced to the FIRST version of the Final Four, which played out on the “Einstein” court on the floor of the Edward Jones Dome in front of all the student roboticists assembled in St. Louis.
What’s Team 1503′s secret? Their tough tread never needed replacing, the students explained, and the robot sat barely three-quarters of an inch off the ground, making it highly maneuverable.
Most teams built long arms of aluminum to reach up and place the balloons on the pegs. But the arm that Team 1899 from Bellevue, Wash., constructed actually was wood. The coaches taught the students to use belt sanders, power saws and other woodworking equipment to create an arm that’s more resistant to bending during game-time collisions than aluminum, yet still light enough to qualify for the FRC competition.
Team 195 from Southington, Conn., made a quick fix in the garage. The mechanism that deployed the team minibot was banging against the big robot’s arm, messing up the alignment. But after a few quick cuts with a Sawzall, the team got its arm back in competition shape.
The Lightning Lancers (Team 1444)
One of the local teams, 1444, builds bots that can take a beating, mentor Steve Headrick says—this one has a 4-inch arm that contains mechanisms to extend upward and to move the claw.
Team 1444 (“The Lightning Lancers”) includes a number of home-schooled students from around the St. Louis area. But because they didn’t come from a particular high school, finding work space was a challenge. Headrick explained to PM that the team members found an abandoned building—an Auto Zone that went out of business—and the landlord allowed them to make it their workshop.
Junior David Wright from Team 610 out of Toronto explained to PM that the key to his robot’s claw is the two sets of chains that grip the inflatable balloon. Since they run independently, the students can change the direction of each to turn the tube to the correct angle.
Team 610 (Cont.)
Wright says the bot’s two interior wheels are just a tiny bit lower to the ground than the wheels closest to the edge, which shortens the turning radius and allowed the bot to drive the crazy course more nimbly. Wright works on the mechanical part of the team, but says that it takes everybody to field a winning robot. Each team member works on designing the robot in CAD, he says. “Mechanical turns that into reality. Electrical and programming make it work.”
Sophomore Matt Whyte tells PM that his team, 1829, was struggling with its robot arm, so during early competition the students took it off and used their robust robot to play defense, attempting to block out other teams. “The arm was sketchy,” he says. “We might as well make ourselves useful.”
This minibot belongs to Team 1622 from Poway High School, near San Diego. The square box seen here on the minibot’s left side is what attaches to the horizontal arm seen projecting from the main robot in the background of this image. The students extend that arm to deploy the minibot. The attachment comes off the minibot easily and can fasten to another, allowing the student engineers to trade out minibots.
Team 365 from Wilmington, Del., sought to dominate the opening of the FIRST matches in which the machines must operate autonomously, says Devon Roper, a 2004 alumnus of the team who was back to help out this year—this time with a college degree in electrical engineering. Like most of the robots at the national competition, Team 365′s could complete the initial task of a match: After the team lined it up toward the goal and placed the balloon in its claw, the robot could drive forward on its own and place a balloon on a peg at the correct height. However, this team’s bot—thanks to its sonar, indicating what was in front of it, and sophisticated encoders built into its wheels and arm—could go looking for extra balloons, pick them up and find its way back to the goal all by itself.