Coach Recaps Historic Robotics Season

The following recap is from Mr. Tim Nendick '08, Rockhurst Robotics (The JesuBots) Coach.

Season Summary | Background
As background, each year the robotics game changes. This year, the game "Charged Up"  involved alliances of three robots working together to move inflatable cubes and small cones across a 60-foot field and place them on tiered shelves and poles. The task - especially cones - is deceptively difficult, and our students spent two months working through five iterations of end-effector designs to more effectively manipulate these elements. Ultimately, the robot they built has the highest level of engineering and fabrication in the history of our program. As before, our robot remains entirely designed, built, and fabricated by students under the guidance - but not action - of adult mentors. Every non-painted piece of our robot was built - from start to finish - in our lab at Rockhurst.  This is distinct from the majority of competitive programs, and central to our team identity and mission. 

Throughout the year, we have worked to make a foundation that allowed for this season's successes, and one that should sustain excellence in the coming years. The following is a non-exhaustive list of things happened this year:
  • We moved to an online CAD program, Onshape, that allows far greater student access and collaboration. This is akin to learning a new language, and the students excelled in this difficult task.
  • We dramatically improved our hobby-grade CNC and have pushed it to its absolute limit, currently being able to mill 1/8" wall aluminum tube to 0.005" precision, and work in polycarbonate effectively. For this particular machine, we are consistently getting results far above its specified quality. Further improvement isn't possible with this machine.
  • We doubled the student size of the team; our freshman group is particularly distinct from past years, and we're excited for their future.
  • We made our own process for powder coating long extrusions, saving more than a thousand dollars in the process. This process will be shared with the larger FIRST community to enable other teams the ability to make one-off production parts in-house.
  • We implemented significantly more complex control schemes in student programming, including multiple, interdependent feedforward PID loops.
  • We developed and programed a drive-train that will be evergreen to our team in compatible games.

Season Summary | Regionals
At our first regional, the team was still struggling to interact with the game pieces reliably. They adapted, and ultimately ended up significantly (and temporarily) modifying their robot to play a defensive role; this had them placed on the second alliance (of eight). By skilled driving, robust construction, rapid iteration programming, and good strategy, they worked as a group of thee schools and were able to defeat each alliance present - including one comprising the 90th and 42nd best robots (of more than 3400) in the world this year.  This is a defining point in the season, and what qualified Rockhurst for Worlds.  Winning a regional is the second highest honor in the program, and no small feat for an alliance. This is RHS's second ever win.

In our second regional, we had a major electrical failure rooted, ultimately, in a bad motor. Diagnosing a failed brushless motor is a difficult task, and the failed motor unfortunately caused extensive damage to the control circuitry upstream. Fixing this problem took the students most of the event, and required them to work closely with experts in automotive control system engineering and professional programmers. They were able to rectify the failure, but fell short of the finals as an alliance, ultimately being eliminated by the winning teams.  This event was marked by the first time Rockhurst has received the quality award, which is an impressive feat for our small, in-house program. This award has the following criteria:

Description: Celebrates machines robustness in concept and fabrication
  • A team must be able to describe their quality plan i.e. how their design ensures robustness throughout the entire competition.
  • The entire machines demonstrates quality: workmanship, welds, attachment systems, wiring, paint, etc.
  • The machine can withstand the rigors of competition - maintaining functionality, including the use of designed-in redundancy and risk mitigation measures.
  • Building the machine contributes to the team's success. 

This award celebrates the students' ability to see through the engineering and fabrication process in all its steps: from concept, to design, to fabrication, to integration. The award is given by event judges, who are professionals in the fields of engineering and fabrication. In each of our events, the judges were highly complimentary of our students' abilities in the engineering process, and impressed with our ability to quickly iterate in this process. Specifically, we are one of the few teams they see that are capable of moving from idea to finished product in a day in-house. Building parts to fail and learn from them is central to our team structure, and we're thankful to see it recognized by experts. They also noted the quality of student work for the (relatively speaking) limited size of our program - both in student number and especially in available machines. 

Season Summary | Redesign
After our second regional, it was clear to the team a full redesign of the scoring mechanism was needed; the students pulled off this difficult task in 10 days - from CAD, to fabrication, to programming. The difficult choice to move from something that was effective - but not sufficient to be competitive at the worlds level - to one which might be  - came with risk and significant demands on student time. The students ultimately showed each system of the robot to be healthy and competition-ready two days before leaving for Houston. 

Season Summary | Worlds
Across all divisions and levels of competition, some 50,000 people attended the event, totaling representatives from 59 countries. In our level of competition, there are approximately 3,400 teams from around the world, with 600 advancing to the championship through some means. This year, 205 other teams advanced to worlds by winning a regional alongside Rockhurst. This puts our season performance in the top 6% of Robotics teams internationally

At Worlds, our team started working closely with one of the highest-performing teams to make us a better fit as a supporting robot. This involved re-programming a currently-working system to make it more robust. This was a gamble the students were willing to make, as supporting the highest level teams was the only way for us to move forward further. This gamble, unfortunately, also pushed a motor beyond its designed specifications, and caused failures through much of the first day of competition. In games routinely decided by only a few points, this set the performance of our robot too low to be competitive. The problem was ultimately rectified, and our last matches were particularly good (watch one here )- but it was too little, too late, to be picked by another team. 

It is a core philosophy of the team that failure is equally likely to success, and not giving the students a real opportunity to fail is also not giving them a real opportunity at all. The choice to attempt many design revisions - through active competitions - ultimately lead to lower performance than we had hoped, but also reflects the key learning outcomes we desire as a community. The student choice to redesign and take a risk should be celebrated - and was ultimately the correct one to make. It was the most likely way for the team to advance, and the lessons learned most certainly influence our design goals moving forward. 

While ultimately our performance was significantly lower than we had designed, built, and hoped for, this trip had several important learning experiences for the students:

  • A delegation of nine students went to the space center on Wednesday, and toured the Apollo Control Center, saw a falcon 9 rocket up close, and traveled inside a space shuttle.
  • Our lead designers were judged by international engineers and recognized for the quality of their workflow and robot design, being considered for the highest awards in the competition.
  • Students worked alongside teams from many countries, including mentoring a Turkish on implementing a more robust drive train, collaborating on safety practices with a Brazilian team, and many more.
  • Students interviewed some 250 teams about their best practices, including new design techniques that we can implement to make more reliable, robust robots moving forward.
  • Students studied the approaches made in team branding, in support of our goal of competing for the FIRST impact award in 2024, the highest award in the program. 
  • Students successfully overcame mechanical failure, troubleshooting and re-programming the robot between their 10 matches. 
Thank You's
Many in our community support this program - including you, by reading this. So a thank you for your support. In a special way, a thank you to:
  • Mr. Cade Prins and Mr. Mitchell Tran, for helping make the long drive and accompany the students in Texas this week. This trip, logistically, would be impossible without them, and the help of Mr. Chris Bosco in coordinating and planning. 
  • Dr. Diane Marty, for connecting our program to an anonymous donor to offset all student travel costs associated with Worlds.
  • Mr. Pat Goodwin, for assisting our students with welding.
  • Mr. John Meyer and Mr. Scott Hoffman, for being long-term volunteer mentors for our students. John additionally made the drive to Houston, towing our team trailer. 

Then many others who supported through subbing and making sub arrangements, handling receipts, organizing vans, helping tell stories, asking students who may not be the most communicative about what robotics actually does, and more. 

In a final, special way, we thank our team seniors for their dedication and labors to make this team a sustainable one that continues its growth in the coming years, including next, where we will play a brand new game, with new challenges. It will be called "Crescendo".  Each level of the competition next year will have some focus on the arts. We will not know more about the game until January 2024.