I. The Crash
From the stands, Christia West, the lead mentor of Community High School’s 5708 Zebrotics team, watched as the team’s robot raised its lift. This was one of their first qualification matches at the Lakeview Regional Competition in Battle Creek, Mich. on Mar. 8. Shooting a ball into the cargo ship, the team was off to a quick start.
That was when the robot’s lift came crashing, causing the entire 124-pound mass of aluminum and steel to lurch wildly.
“[The lift] came crashing down very violently, with so much force that it actually pulled a component that was really securely seated out of metal,” West said.
The crash scattered parts and unplugged the radio, cutting the robot off from the driver’s commands. The whole machine remained static for the rest of the match: An agonizing two minutes for the team.
The lift was out of commission for the rest of the day. As the part of the robot responsible for positioning the manipulators, which position the game pieces, a disabled lift was a huge hit to the team’s capability. Zebrotics had to figure out what the robot could still do, and apply any fixes possible in the hour before the next match.
II. The Competition
The FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) is an international high school robotics competition. The 2019 competition, named “Destination: Deep Space,” takes place on the fictional planet Primus.
Throughout each 2 ½ minute long match, the two sides — each with three robots — must score as many points as possible. This is done by securing the game pieces (either disc-shaped hatches or ball-shaped cargo) onto a cargo ship at the middle of the playing field, or rocket ships on the side with hard-to-reach upper levels. At the end of the game, robots must return to the end of the playing field to protect themselves from a “sandstorm”. Even more points are awarded for reaching a podium-like structure.
III. The Opening Matches
The night before competition, the Zebrotics team scrambled to set up the pit. With only six weeks to design and build their robot, losing multiple work days to school cancellations left the team less prepared than usual for the competition.
Like many of their competitors, Zebrotics was rushing non-stop to finish work on the robot systems, leaving no time for the drivers to practice.
“The drivers are the ones actually operating the robot in the competition and the more practice they have, the more successful we are in competition,” West said.
On Mar. 8, the day after set up, the team learned about which qualification matches they would enter. They found they would be in the first round of the regional, cutting what little time they had to prepare the robot. As the field crew brought their robot onto the field, they had little idea of what would happen next.
Throughout the first few matches, the team faced a slew of issues: The motor controllers were not plugged in, leaving the robot dead on the field; the pulleys would not work, stalling the lift; and all of it culminated with the lift crashing.
IV. Improvise, Adapt, Overcome
After the lift broke, the team listed out what the robot could do. The hatch manipulator was still functional. Not only that, they could still play defense, by preventing the opposing side from delivering the game pieces. Through this, Zebrotics helped their side secure victory in multiple matches.
The last qualification matches came the next day, on Mar. 9. By their final qualification round, the team had fixed the lift.
Zebrotics’ robot emerged onto the field, headed straight for the rocket. The hatch manipulator pivoted into position and the robot lined up to attach the hatch. As the robot pulled away, the hatch remained perfectly in place on the rocket. Returning to the end of the field, the robot retrieved a cargo ball, and pushed towards the rocket ship. Fighting off a defensive push from an opponent robot, the drivers lined up for a shot into the rocket ship, missing. Undeterred, the drivers chased after another cargo ball, and beelined the robot to the cargo ship.
A cheer went up from the stands. As the 30-second warning came from the speakers, Zebrotics secured yet another ball, and it firmly entered the cargo ship. With only seven seconds left in the match, the robot turned left and sped towards the end of the field, reaching it just as the buzzer went off.
The team was not selected for the playoff matches. Nonetheless, many team members felt the last round was nothing short of success.
“If we had been playing like that all throughout the competition, we would’ve been in finals,” West said.
V. Passion for Engineering
During the awards ceremony, teams are recognized not only for winning the competition but for categories such as safety, entrepreneurship, and engineering inspiration. Zebrotics had yet to win any of these awards in their five-season history.
One-by-one, awards were given to other teams. Finally, the Judges’ Award was presented. This award is selected by the competition judges for a unique category they choose.
“The passion they show for the FIRST Robotics program are exhilarating,” the announcer said. “When brainstorming new ideas, their philosophy is, ‘it doesn’t matter if it’s possible’. The passion for engineering award goes to team 5708, Zebrotics.”
“When we were talking to the judges in the pits we were talking through the [design] process that we chose to go through and how at the beginning of the season, anybody in any subteam could present an idea,” Capuano said. “Even if the idea was almost impossible we’d still listen through with it. The process is something every team does, but every team does it differently. Seeing that our process has an effect on judges was something that was really exciting.”
West believes the judges also recognized something else: the design and assembly of the robot was led by students, not mentors.
“I remember a robot from another competition where they had these amazing wheels and sure enough, one of the mentors worked for the GM Tank Division and they made those wheels,” West said. “The spirit of the competition is that high school students make the robot. Even though they were guided [by mentors], the final decisions [for Zebrotics] were by the students. I think that’s why our team is so full of spirit.”
The team is gearing up for their next competition in Livonia on Apr. 5-6, and changing their design to reflect what they learned at competition.
“We’re at the point in a lot of teams’ processes that they think it’s the time [to switch] from specialising to a team that can do almost everything reliably,” Capuano said. “We tried to make that switch. However, probably due to how we scheduled our build times and our actual [workshop] which we didn’t have put together till really late in the season, we weren’t really able to make that switch. Being able to specialize and play one kind of aspect is actually an effective strategy in the game that we could keep playing for a longer time.”