Robotics season begins with new rules, new designs, and an out-of-this-world objective

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Imagine if, at the beginning of every football season, the coaches and the players sat down together to learn a completely new sport. Maybe this year the football is replaced by a beach ball. Maybe they have a completely new scoring system. Or maybe this year the players can only pass backwards and over their shoulders.

It sounds ridiculous, but this is what the robotics team does every January.

At the beginning of the year the FIRST Robotics Competition, an international robotics competition for high school students, releases all of the  information about the rules, objectives and logistics of the year’s games in one fell data drop. All of this information will determine what kind of robot the team will construct during the six week build period before the tournaments begin.

On Saturday, Jan. 5 high school students across the globe gathered for this year’s reveal. In Winters students and mentors battled heavy rain and winter break to meet in Mike Challender’s old classroom. Mentors made waffles and pancakes while the students watched video demonstrations of the new field and read through the entire list of rules.

In 2018 the teams designed robots that could grab and carry yellow boxes across the field and place them on levers and a giant scale. This year the boxes are gone, along with the levers and the scale.

They are replaced with balls, discs, multi-level platforms and rockets.

The 2019 competition is titled, “Destination Deep Space,” and is sponsored by the Boeing Company. The new field evokes the kind of planetary base that one might see in a science fiction movie. Four empty “rockets” stand 10 feet tall along the outer walls of the field. The middle is taken up by a large “cargo ship,” complete with bays that the robots will attempt to fill.

Last year the robots began each match in a fixed position in front of their drive team’s station. This year, given the choice between three platform levels, the teams will decide where their robot will begin each match. The first hurdle the robotics team will face is getting down from their platform.

Each platform represents a different amount of points, as well as a different level of difficulty. The first is only three inches tall, and has a slight ramp down to the ground. The second level is 6 inches off the ground and the third is over a foot tall. Both end in sharp drop-offs to the floor. The team will need to design a robot that can both fit onto a platform and get down from it.

The matches will begin with a 15 second “sandstorm period,” during which a screen will block the field from the human players’ view. To score points the robots will have to move off their platforms and begin competing. The teams will have to decide if they will be building a robot that can be programmed to operate autonomously, or set it up with a camera that can send video feed back to the drivers.

The playing pieces for this year’s competition are mid-sized balls that will serve as “cargo” and large plastic discs with a hole in the middle, which look a little like a flat doughnut and are called “hatch covers.” There hatch covers will be incredibly important to secure early in the match.

One of the most important objectives of the game is to fill the three empty levels of the rockets and the cargo ship bays with balls. This is made more challenging by the two openings on each side of the rockets and the slanted floor on each level. This is what makes the hatch covers so important. If a robot places a ball in a rocket or a cargo bay that has not had one side secured by a hatch cover, the ball will roll out and go bouncing across the floor.

The two wildly different playing pieces create an interesting design issue for the robotics team. While human hands can transition between picking up a round ball and a flat disc without thinking, these two actions are mechanically very different.

At first the team considered building a robot with a single arm that could open to grab a ball as well as reach through the center of a hatch cover. Unfortunately when team mentor Mike Challender researched this solution, he came up against another issue.

With the single arm design in mind, Challender searched online stores for the necessary parts. What he found was that the piece was sold out and waitlisted across the country.

This is a national competition, and before the teams compete against each other, they compete for parts. Other schools came up with the same solution that Winters students concocted, but they bought the parts first.

With that minor setback, the robotics team will continue to plan their robot.

After learning the game and reading all of the rules, the team starts with a plan. Challender first asked the team to determine the maximum number of points that could be scored during a match. From there they can consider how to score those points.

For now, the robotics team is busy strategizing, designing and building for the new season’s challenges.

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