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In a countdown to competition, the fabrication labs inhabited by the Prep robotics team are cacophonous and chaotic, but cached in the clamor is an integrated, collaborative workflow that usually results in a trophy 

The legendary and now-retired NASA flight director Gene Kranz served the agency for nearly four decades and is best known for his role in saving the crew of Apollo 13 in 1970—just his fourth year on the job. Kranz once summed up the day-to-day at Mission Control as follows: “Spaceflight will never tolerate carelessness, incapacity, and neglect.” The clever and concise maxim is a pretty apt description of what to avoid when building a robot, too. As software designer Chris Jerrett ’18 puts it: “Let’s face it, a lot can go wrong.”

This Saturday morning, weeks of preparation inside the Keefe Academic Center will progress from planning and development to the execution stage when three teams from St. John’s take on 48 other squads during the VEX Robotics Competition at North Andover High. The tournament marks the first of two chances for the Eagles to qualify for the Southern New England High School VRC Starstruck Championship next March.

A tremendous degree of engineering and software design takes place before a team sets down its creation into the competitive arena that this year will be a 12-x-12 square foot field of play. But at the end of the day, a robotics competition is exactly what it sounds like. One school’s machine must outperform the others to advance. That is: disrupt, impede, out-innovate, outscore and/or outsmart. Since Prep students first dipped their collective toes into competitive robotics in 2010, the results have been downright bionic. Quantitatively, that tips the scales at more than two dozen trophies in seven seasons, with the eighth currently underway.

Be that as it may, past success hasn’t left the Eagles any less hungry or contemplative, and it certainly hasn’t made anyone cocky.

“Everyone says I’ve been pretty skeptical about what our expectations should be leading up to this competition, but I will say we are confident in our design,” says Gavin Garland ’18, the hardware captain for the Prep’s “Mecha Eagles Team A” entry in tomorrow’s tournament, who was forced to raise his voice and lean in to be heard over the bustle inside the Computer Science Department’s practice space earlier this week. “At the same time, we really don’t know where all the other schools are in terms of what stage of development they’re at. Historically, the Prep has been better than most teams in the early part of the season, but we haven’t remained near the top as the season progresses and other teams catch up. We’re hoping to reverse that this year.”

A WHOLE NEW WORLD

This year’s rubric in VEX competitions is dubbed “In the Zone.” Teams compete in matches consisting of a 15-second autonomous period (more on this later) followed by a one minute, 45 second stretch of driver-controlled play. That’s where the similarities to last year’s rules end. The object of the game in 2017-18 is to attain a higher score by stacking cones on goalposts, scoring mobile goals by transporting cones into goal zones and by parking robots. There are 80 cones that can be stacked on 10 goalposts (five per team) during a match. Some cones begin in designated locations on the field, while others are available to be entered into the field during the match. For spatial context, it’s important to note that robots must be smaller than 18x18x18 inches for this year’s competition.

The fixed-location cones and goals are where robots’ autonomous function comes into play. Software designers like Jerrett—as opposed to a hardware specialist like Garland, who actually leads the engineering design and construction of the robot to squeeze optimum efficiency from the nuts and bolts by customizing the bot to the rules of this year’s game—create the programing algorithms that comprise the robot’s brain. A programming algorithm is a computer procedure that, much like a recipe, tells a software interface precisely what steps the integrated hardware should to take to solve a problem or reach a goal. In short, it’s a smart guy programming a hunk of metal (with apologies to Garland and his fellow hardware gurus) to obey highly refined commands.

Jerrett, the Mecha Eagles Team A software captain, explains that the 15-second autonomous period can be a critical window to score points because cones sit in definitive positions and the robot can be pre-programmed to zip to those locations and carry the cones to prescribed spots on the playing grid to score points before student drivers even get involved in the competition. The Prep won an Innovation Award at the 2016 Southern New England Championship in large part due to a robot’s autonomous function. Naturally, programming like that takes more than a few weeks.

“We have all the driver-controlled (“teleoperated” in competitive robotics parlance) software complete at this point,” says Jerrett. “The autonomous software that guides the robot without human participation is something we refine as the season progresses. It’s not our focus right now. From a software design perspective, this week has been about debugging and adjusting the controls based upon our drivers’ preferences. Our 15 seconds of autonomous function on Saturday will be all about a blocking program. In other words, just interfering with the ability of the other team’s robot to score.”

Blocking and scoring in the zone isn’t the only challenge teams face during competition. Judges closely inspect each bot over the course of an hour and 15 minutes before matches start. At lunchtime, judges circulate and interview each team member about their specific role in the robot’s construction. Teams must surrender their engineering book to judges as well, which must contain detailed daily notes about plans and decisions the team made in terms of engineering and software design—including mathematical proofs and line-by-line coding—leading up to the competition.

GAME ON

In a tournament setting, competing schools are divided into four-team groupings for round-robin play. Following these initial rounds, all 51 teams will be ranked according to their points scored. The top eight teams advance to the knockout rounds where each match becomes a best-of-three format.

But here’s the kicker: Each quarterfinalist must choose two partner teams from round-robin play to create an alliance because knockout round play features four robots in the zone at once (that is, a quarterfinalist robot and another school’s robot its designers choose to partner with vs. another quarterfinalist and its chosen partner bot). Each chosen alliance robot alternates in partnering with the quarterfinalist bot as the competition advances.

This collaborative process of forming alliances is where the rubber meets the road in competitive robotics. Why? Because the 43 teams that don’t qualify for the top eight on Saturday must make their case to quarterfinalist teams from other schools that their own robot is the perfect complement to the quarterfinalist bot. In other words, “Your robot does these things well, but is weak at this other aspect of the competition, and that’s a strength of our robot. You need us.”

“The personal advocacy is huge,” says Garland. “You have to lobby why your robot is good with another. If we ourselves are a quarterfinalist and we’re in the position of choosing, we have to be smart and picky.”

Indeed, there are no idle hands in competitive robotics. “Everybody’s got a job to do at a competition and if you’re idle, you’re scouting,” says Jerrett.

If one or more of the Prep teams can find the sweet spot between design and diplomacy this season, the Eagles will have a legitimate shot at qualifying for the Southern New England meet and a chance to advance to the 2018 VEX Robotics World Championship in Louisville, Kentucky next April.

“Our goal this season is to attend World’s,” says assistant club moderator and computer science teacher Lisa Standring. “That would be a first for the Prep, so that’s what we’re shooting for.”

THE FUTURE IS NOW

There are far too many cool tidbits about competitive robotics to recount in a single tournament preview. But know this: Ambition knows no bounds. For example, the Mecha Eagles Team A robot is equipped with a dual-driver switching control (yes, that means two students drive the robot at the same time) that allows one driver to pilot the robot in reverse (because the cone-lifting component resides along the backside of the bot), while the other driver is responsible for forward motion. Team A drivers are jake Duran ’18 and Matt Folan ’18.

Mind you, Mecha Eagles Team B is no slouch. Jack Busa ’18 is the hardware captain, while Fred Lu ’18 captains software and Adam Rutledge ’20 serves as the driver (though Busa will drive tomorrow with Rutledge participating in the sophomore retreat). Next is the all-freshman Mecha Eagles Team C, which lobbied unsuccessfully to be entered into tomorrow’s competition as the “CEagles.” The difficult but deeply gratifying duty of stewarding the freshmen squad has fallen to affable and self-effacing senior Forrest Dawe.

“The biggest challenge is that these guys don’t know robotics,” says Dawe. “What’s great is that we can show them early in their time with this team how we want the buildup to a competition to run. We can show them the engineering and design processes. They’re very dedicated. We’re a little behind on completing the build of the robot because we have to explain everything every step of the way, but this will be a great experience for them. They see what this team is like and they’ll see what it’s like to be part of tournament competition. It’s a good learning experience.”

The bar has been set pretty high for newcomers to the program. By way of example, an anecdote from the 2016-17 campaign illustrates the standard of excellence that permeates competitive robotics at the Prep. During a tournament last season, lead moderator and computer science teacher Bernie Gilmore ’80 become displeased with a group of idle team members who were apparently ignoring his instructions scout opposing teams. Mr. Gilmore was promptly informed that the group had set up a camera on a tripod that was recording matches and automatically uploading the scouting footage the team’s YouTube page.

“This is what we’re dealing with,” says Standring. “Sometimes you think they’re not listening and it turns out they’re way ahead of you.”

That said, there’s little chance that the Eagles will rest on their laurels. Earlier this week, as the team posed for a group photo displaying the program’s copious stash of past tournament trophies, Mr. Gilmore broke up the gathering with a good-natured challenge: “OK, now go back to work and go win some trophies for yourself instead of standing around with trophies won by other kids in other seasons.”

Pictured above: The VEX Robotics Competition, presented by the Robotics Education & Competition Foundation, is the world’s largest and fastest-growing middle and high school robotics competition. Each year, an engineering challenge is presented in the form of a game. Students, with guidance from their teachers and mentors, build innovative robots and compete year-round in a variety of matches. VEX competition draws a million student competitors populating 20,000 teams across 45 countries. This year’s Prep team: (front row) Ryan Jermany ’21, Anthony Crivello ’21, Delby Urena ’21, Michael Baraty ’19, Brandon Saad ’20; (back row) Gamaliel Aviles ’21, Robotics Club President Gavin Garland ’18, Chris Jerrett ’18, Daniel Dischino ’21, Jacob Duran ’18, Jason Jermany ’19, Fred Lu’18, Henry Fuller ’21, Peter Zarakas ’18, Nick Stearns ’20, Christian DeSimone ’18, Cole Busa ’20, Cameron Pilla ’20 and Forrest Dawe ’18. (Not pictured: Jack Busa ’18 and Adam Rutledge ’20)

Posted by Mr. Chad Konecky in What the Tech?, Student Life on Friday November, 17, 2017
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