March 27, 2012
When robots compete on the court, the real stars of the show are in the background
When Oak Harbor High School teacher Che Edoga talks about robotics, whether in the classroom or on the field of competition, he is quick to emphasize the unobvious.
"It's not about the robot," he said. "Once the kids get passed the robot, they begin to see the world of possibility that surrounds robotics. The robot is just the end product."
There's 3-D CAD modeling, all aspects of engineering, metal fabrication and welding, electronics, pneumatics, computer programming, business planning, research, creative design, industrial safety, inventory and acquisition, marketing, and, above all, cooperation.
"There is nothing I can teach them (about robotics) that won't be obsolete by the time they get out of school," he said. "That's how fast the field is evolving. But if they gain basic skills, especially the ability to research and experiment on their own, then they will be able to use that for a lifetime."
At FIRST Robotics, a high-tech competition held in Seattle last weekend, cooperation is every bit as important as the engineering. Robots appeared to be front and center, like star athletes, but there was so much more going on in the background. Almost all of it centered around professional courtesy, with teams working with each other, sharing parts and tools and know-how.
Once the three-day event gets underway, Edoga steps back and lets the kids run the entire show. In the end, Oak Harbor did not make it to the quarterfinals of the competition, but they did come home with a trophy Edoga considers more important. Oak Harbor earned the "Gracious Professionalism" award, a sportsmanship-type trophy, for reaching out to other teams with assistance.
Student Kyle Noe spent much of his time working with a team from Mexico, helping them get their robot into competition shape. Last year, Oak Harbor helped a rookie team through all the pitfalls in their first season.
On the competition side, teams of students ushered dozens of robots around the CenturyLink Event Center in Seattle, preparing for another bout. Oak Harbor's drive team of Caterina Amsler, Nina Manning, Rachel Margraf, and Mallory Hunt escorted Robot 2980 to the competition field.
There three robots on the Blue Team and three robots on the Red Team met on a small basketball court. At each end were three sets of baskets, one set high, one at mid-level, and one low.
At the sound of the bell, the robots jumped into action, even without anyone at the controls. This is the 15-second autonomous portion, where the robots independently shoot basketballs into the hoops. Some are very good at it. Most are not.
At the second bell, the drive teams move forward and take control of the robots using joy sticks. Now there job is to pick up more basketballs from the floor and score as many baskets as possible.
The robots are as varied in style and ability as any two people picked randomly. Oak Harbor had a two-pronged approach to scoring baskets, with an air-powered shooter to make high baskets (worth three points) and a drop box to make low baskets (one point). At inspection, though, they discovered their robot measured ¼ inch over the size limit, and that forced them to abandon the pneumatic shooter.
In the last minute of competition, the robots move towards the center floor, where there are three platforms balanced on a fulcrum like a teeter-totter. The robots work as a team to get one or two robots onto the platform and get it to balance in the center. Getting two robots in balance on the same platform is even better.
But the greatest achievement in the entire competition is to have competing robots suddenly switch gears and work as partners so that each balances on the teeter-totter together. That, in FIRST Robotics language, is "cooperatition" and the main emphasis and philosophy behind the entire event.
Oak Harbor is in its fourth year participating in FIRST Robotics. Its first team consisted of five students. This year there were 30.
The competition and specifications for the robot is announced six weeks before the big event. In the first week, the team develops several ideas with rough CAD designs. They present the plans to a committee from the community, which picks one for development. The team spends another week finalizing and improving the design and then gets four weeks to build and test the robot.
Most teams have major sponsorships, with different companies providing funds and expertise to help students build the robots. This year Bowman Manufacturing of Arlington stepped up to help out. This made a huge difference in the ability to develop parts, Edoga said. Next year, Bowman has invited students to come to their work site to job shadow and work with engineers to build the parts.
The robotics team is planning to expand their outreach this spring by hosting a weekend Lego robotics camp at the high school. This mid-May event will offer younger kids an introduction to robotics and could be the start of an Oak Harbor team for the Junior FIRST Robotics Lego League.
"It's our philosophy that if you're not growing, you're dying," Edoga said. "And our team is always ready to grow."