This March, the robotics team went to the San Francisco and Silicon Valley regional competitions. In only a brief six week period, the team, consisting of approximately thirty M-A students, blue-printed 3-D designs, sawed and chiseled at various mechanical parts, and coded commands to create their own robot entirely from scratch.
BUILDING THE ROBOT
M-A’s robotics team is part of the organization called For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST). Each year FIRST sends out a game manual with over 100 pages of robot competition requirements to teams across the country and even internationally. Students must then produce a 120-pound robot formed from their own imagination and skills to perform standards at various regional competitions.
“We have no idea what the game is until we walk into that room in January and there is a brand new game manual, a 150 or so pages just sitting there,” said Skylar Van Sijll, senior at M-A and president of the team.
The task is far from easy. The manual doesn’t provide instructions on how to build the robot; rather, the team members must come up with their own design which will perform the series of functions listed.
“We have to decipher the whole manual. It’s not like they say your robot must do basketball, or it must do this and this. All they tell you is how to score points … So figuring out what kind of robot you want to build is totally your responsibility as a team,” she added.
This year, the challenge was to create a robot that could pick up and throw whiffle balls, collect plastic gears hanging from pegs, and climb up ropes. It was a challenge that required a complex multi-step building process and the energy and commitment of all its uniquely skilled members.
Their first step in this six-week “building period” is prototyping. It’s an intense one to two-week session in which the team members choose a robot design by testing several start-up ideas. Through trial and error, the team tries to “scrap” plans that will not work, leaving only the robot ideas that have the potential to succeed. This task can be one of the most difficult parts of the building process because “it’s really hard to get thirty people to all agree on a design and say ‘let’s spend the next six weeks building this,’” said Van Sijll.
Once settled with a design, part of the team called the Computer Aided Design (CAD) team, creates a 3-D blueprint of the robot on the computer. Blueprinting every single part of the robot ensures that there aren’t measurement mistakes when the robot is built later on. It’s then up to the mechanical and electronics team to build each part and electrically circuit them together using the blueprint as a visual guide.
Finally, the robot needs to be programmed by another group of students, the software team. To succeed at a regional competition, the robot must both follow commands by a driver and function autonomously to pre-programmed commands.
Junior Margaret Chan is one of three members on the software team. After coding for the team for two years now, she described the process: “We write Java code to control the way the robot moves, communicate between joystick and robot, and [are] autonomous … because there is a 20-second section at the beginning of the match where … the robot has to fully operate automatically using the code.”
These twenty seconds are especially nerve-inducing. “If the robot starts to mess up, you can’t do anything about it. You just have to watch and cry a little bit inside,” said Van Sijll.
MINI SUCCESSES/ISSUES AT THE REGIONAL COMPETITIONS
One issue with the robot was at M-A’s first competition of the month, the San Francisco Regional on March 17-19 at St. Ignatius College Preparatory. “There was some issues with the driver station and the robot receiving the commands that he was inputting. There was a lag of like three seconds,” said Van Sijll.
Yet, the Bears did do well with many other aspects of the competition. “We were really good with climbing the rope. But it’s a little scary; you see your six weeks of hard work climbing that rope and you know that if anything goes wrong, it’s not going to land safely on its two feet like a human would. It will fall and go clunk, and it would be a lot of repair work that happens. We did a good job with the disk too,” she added.
However, the team fixed the communication problem for the Silicon Valley Regional which was on March 30 and even made it to the quarterfinals!
PERSEVERANCE AND COMMITMENT OF ROBOTICS MEMBERS
What makes the robotics team different from joining a computer class or team sport is that it covers a variety of skills. Members learn not only technical skills like using a saw or coding, but they learn valuable life skills like talking to people, working in groups, and marketing.
“It’s basically like a mini start-up in a way. You have to be able to do a lot of different things … Even though I am on the programming team, I also do parts of recruiting and business … It’s really a kind of all-around thing, a lot of people think that it’s just using power tools, but it’s really a lot more, learning to talk to people, and learning to appeal to companies to get sponsorships,” described Chan.
It’s definitely not easy to be part of the robotics team, but Van Sijll thinks that people with determination and passion for robotics can find a place on the team whether or not they have the initial skills. Therefore,Van Sijll and current members welcome new students and do their best to teach them the necessary concepts during the off-season.
“One common misconception of the robotics team is that you join the team 14 years old knowing exactly how to build a 120-pound robot, and that’s just not the case at all … When I joined the team I knew nothing about robotics. I was like the most useless team member. Now I am the team president, and I have learned so many skills because of it,” she explained.
Van Sijll lived in China for two years before coming to M-A, and the school and country change was tough. Joining robotics, however, gave her the chance to find new STEM interests and become more connected with the M-A community. “It was kind of hard adjusting from China back to America. I remember after the first time at robotics I really felt like I kind of found my place again. It was a really long time since I felt super welcome somewhere … That was a really nice feeling!” she said with a laugh.
Van Sijll wants others interested in robotics to feel welcome as well. The team goes through months of training and contacts professional mentors from local companies like Apple and Google to help teach and bring more knowledge to the table.
“We have mentors who come and volunteer their time to help educate us. The parents of students or members from local tech companies like Apple, Google, local start-up companies, and also veteran students are able to take on a few students and teach them,” added Van Sijll.
While the build season is exciting and stressful, the off-season is far from lax. To practice for the competitions and train new members, the team also builds practice robots during the off-season. “We do smaller robots and sometimes another big robot to train new members. They kind of get the feel of the steps you go through to create a final product, so they know what they are getting into,” said Chan.
One time they built sumo robots and held mini competitions within the team.
It’s then up to the new members to decide if robotics is something they want to invest their time in. Chan estimated that the team spends about fifteen hours a week working together during the build season which includes a few days after school and sometimes on the weekend. The time commitment can be hard, but she thinks that “it’s really worth it in the end because you get … the satisfaction of seeing your work come to life [at the regional competitions] and really see the end product of all your hard work.”
Chan also plays competitive tennis while in the robotics team and knows that she can balance the time between them. “I am able to do both because I make it work. I love doing both of them, and I don’t want to sacrifice either of them,” she explained.
Everyone has unique skills and personalities on the team as Van Sijll described: “We have members who are calm and handle stress well, and we have members who get frantic and nervous like me. We have introverts and extroverts.”
However, they all do share a common trait which Chan defines as a “strong sense of perseverance.”
Therefore, “One of the things I hope to clear up about robotics is that you don’t have to be the Sheldon Cooper or a nerd in front of the computer all day long. I am certainly not that person. I just spent like an hour doing my makeup just for fun,” laughed Van Sijll.