The robot has just been freed from its evening resting place, and they’re getting ready for some test runs and further development. As it maneuvers around the benches, it makes the whirring sound characteristic of an electric wheelchair.
Only this time, there’s an extra clicking noise they haven’t heard before. As one of the students pokes around looking for things that might be interfering with the wheels or mechanism, he notices a wire.
“There’s a spare wire. Why do we have a spare wire?”
The wire isn’t causing the clicking, but it is something to be noted and addressed. Noises aside, the machine seems to be operating normally, so they proceed to put it through further paces.
It was mid-afternoon on a Tuesday in Mr. Lowrey’s shop classroom. About 10 high school students were milling about in the hallway as we got there, waiting for Coach Dickens to open up the room. This is where they gathered as the first team at Liberty High School, outside Renton, Washington – Boeing country – to participate in the annual FIRST Robotics competition.
They’re the Botty Builders, Team 4131.
The FIRST program (which stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology”) was founded about 15 years ago by inventor Dean Kamen, of Segue fame, to bring the kind of excitement typically reserved for sports or music or drama to technology. A whole new group of high school kids can be drawn into a project with real learning and real results. In fact, as Morgan Freeman tells it in the promotional video he narrates, unlike in those other fields, each of the kids has a very likely chance of getting into the big leagues after graduation: these skills are in demand.
For the younger grades, there is a Lego League, which you might think of as fun and games. It gets more serious in high school, with a major competition each year involving teams from around the world. Even though the students get to exercise their adrenal glands, however, this is no Food Network Schadenfreude Theater, pain-and-humiliation, let’s-watch-the-loser-cry, competition. They foster a sense of “gracious professionalism,” or “coopetition,” so that participants can compete full-bore while maintaining respect for their rivals, helping each other to learn, and fostering a view to the fact that the art as a whole will be furthered by their efforts.
This team’s coach is Tom Dickens, who by day is an Associate Technical Fellow, Commercial Airplanes, at Boeing. He started mentoring a FIRST team at Issaquah High School about ten years ago. As his own kids were getting into high school at Liberty, he noted that theirs was the only remaining school in the Issaquah district that didn’t have a team. So he started one and is now the coach rather than just a mentor. And this is their rookie year.
He has no specific work connection to robotics – he’s on his own time, not Boeing’s (although Boeing is a financial sponsor, donating $500 for every 50 hours that Tom volunteers, up to a limit). He has been involved with the Seattle Robotics Society for a number of years, saying that he simply has a passion for robotics. He is visibly moved as he describes the first time he went to Seahawks Stadium (officially CenturyLink Field) and saw a massive crowd of teenagers and parents cheering, not for football or basketball, but for robots. Science and engineering was cool.
Tom isn’t a teacher at the high school, but he did have to become an official employee of the district in order to get a key so that they could work on the weekends. While the teachers are very supportive of the program, they simply don’t have the time to sponsor the team themselves. Likewise, it’s hard to get the parents involved. Most of the work falls to Tom and his wife.
The shop floor has a slick surface – not great for traction. So they drive the beast out into the carpeted hallway to give it a go. Controlled completely by a radio-controlled game controller, it is surprisingly agile. It moves at a fast clip down the hallway but comes to an abrupt stop on command – it is actively decelerated rather than simply cruising to a stop. Classes are done, so there are no other students roaming around. No unwitting victims to use as target practice.
They take turns maneuvering, getting a feel for how it works, for how they can make improvements, making sure not to drive it around the corner up the hall – if they do, they’ll lose radio contact and someone will have to go retrieve it. It’s a mix of fun – who wouldn’t like motoring a robot around the school grounds – and serious work.
The team this year has more than 20 students in it. That’s a big team: many experienced schools have teams numbering only 7 or 8. Not everyone can make it every day; as I visited, half of them were there.
The students come from a mix of grades; there are surprisingly few seniors. Tom describes some of the core work in particular being contributed by freshman girls, who seem to have a particular appetite for learning how to do things like use the shop tools or make design decisions. “A lot of older guys don’t want to admit what they don’t know,” observes Tom.
A couple of the kids have done Lego League in middle school, but the rest are new to FIRST and to robotics. The kids bring a variety of skills with them – shop, electrical, software – but everyone adds significantly to the knowledge they start with.
Of course, robotics is a sophisticated field. World-class universities devote countless brilliant brains to the topic. PhDs can be built from it. So, you might wonder, how is it that high school kids can just show up one day and declare themselves robotics engineers?
Tom explains that they’re not necessarily doing all of the engineering themselves – the sponsors contribute much of that. But each problem they have to solve brings an opportunity to learn some fundamental concept. For instance, if the speed of travel isn’t what they want, they end up with a lesson on gear ratios to figure out how to achieve a better range.
As a rookie team, they have a distinct disadvantage against other teams. While the projects change from year to year, much of the equipment can be re-used, so experienced teams have more stuff ready to go. In addition, each project requires software, and, over the years, more experienced teams are able to build up a library of software that they can pull into future projects. That allows them to increase their sophistication over time, since each year they can add software capabilities to what they already have. A focus on software maintainability improves the chances that this year’s software can be used another time.
Budgets also vary between teams. The kids not only build and compete, but they get involved in fundraising as well. In addition to more traditional ways of summoning up cash from organizations that give grants, the Bottie Builders are getting a button maker – buttons can be a hot item that kids are willing to spend some money on. This helps to fund the project – and it also gives the kids something to trade with other teams at the competition (where tchotchke trading is a big deal).
While there is certainly a difference between the results that a bare-bones budget can provide and those that you get from a $50,000 budget, like some teams have, there is still a real chance for everyone to succeed, and, in some cases, better-funded programs will share their largesse. In one local example, Aviation High School, which specializes in aeronautics, and which has a well-funded team, sets up a practice court on campus. They then let other high schools use it to practice or work out the kinks in their designs. So the money supports more than just their school, and some of the advantage is leveled out.
At one point, the team graciously – and foolishly, perhaps – hands me the joystick. And it becomes immediately clear to me (and probably the others) that my lack of video game skills is a problem (what kind of nerd am I anyway??). And I’m doubly nervous because I don’t want to be the guy that waltzed in, grabbed the controls, and committed robotic mayhem by running the thing at warp speed into a wall, damaging the robot, setting them back weeks and leaving a nasty bruise on the school’s hallway.
The thing is certainly responsive as I move it around, now fast, now slow, forwards, backwards, straight and around in circles. Feigning calm, I blithely maneuver the thing enough to maintain my sense of dignity, quickly handing the controls back when that time arrives, before I can embarrass myself utterly.
This year’s project involves delivering basketballs. The robot has to retrieve them from a pile and stack them to the other side. Some teams are including a mechanism to shoot the basketball; that’s too ambitious for the Bottie Builders in their first foray.
At the time I see the craft, it has the basic navigational systems built. There’s nothing fancy– some plywood on a metal frame with motor controllers and other circuits attached to it and, of course, the motors themselves. Later on they’ll have a big tube for gathering up the basketballs; it’s hard for me to visualize what this will look like and how it will work, but I have to be satisfied with my imagination.
During the competition, the unit has to run autonomously for 15 seconds, and then control can be passed to the remote control unit. They don’t just drive on the flat floor; they have to go over ramps en route. If, at the end, they can balance the unit at the top of a ramp, they get bonus points. There are no points for style.
The teams all have six weeks to build their project. When I was there, they were four weeks in and had two to go. Once the deadline passes, the team has to bag up the robot and can’t touch it until the competition.
Many teams use the entire time to design and build as many features as they can. Which means no time for practice: they’re driving it in earnest for the first time in competition. Tom has eased back on the feature set so that they can devote some time to practicing in advance – which is what they were doing when I was there.
Teams start by purchasing the “rookie kit,” which costs $6500. It contains motors, a computer system, a wireless laptop, sensors, wheels, a simple base (whose use is optional), a Kinect (this year), and a pneumatic system. Returning teams pay $5000 because of the things that they can re-use from the previous years.
How sophisticated the design is depends partly on budget. While the Bottie Builders keep things simple, using the tools available to them, other teams actually use CAD software to do solid mechanical design and then have a local professional metal shop fabricate the parts.
There’s a size limit – around 2.5’x3.5’ in area and 5’ tall – and a weight limit – 120 lbs, excluding the battery and bumpers. Within those limits and the six weeks, they’re free to do what they want.
As I write this, 80 teams from the Northwest – and even some international teams – are mustering for competition. The Bottie Builders will be randomly matched against two other teams, so they’ll have to strategize quickly once they know who they’re up against.
At some point, the bot stops working. No clear reason why. They check the obvious things and summon that time-tested fix-all strategy: power cycling. It helps, but something’s still amiss. “Looks like I’m refining the drive code today,” says the guy who seems to be the King of the Code with mock fatalism.
They bring it back to the shop; practice playtime is over. Time to fix problems, debug software, and continue designing and building. A typical engineering day. I excuse myself so that they can get on with business without having to entertain a visitor.
The goal of this program is to inspire more kids to get into science and engineering. Many kids find a sense of purpose and confidence through the teams; the thrill of competition creates a thirst for more. While I’m sure the kids are aware of these overt goals, it’s not on the top of their mind as I ask them why they do this. Instead of a rote PR answer, they look at each other in that slightly self-conscious teenage way, and one of them shrugs her shoulders and simply says, “Because it’s fun.”
And if they’ve gotten that out of it, the rest should come naturally.