By Lou CoveyNew Tech Press Editorial Director
The FIRST national robotics championship brings together teams from high schools and high school districts from all over the US to solve a particular set of challenges every year. At this year's competition in St. Louis, Missouri, the week of April 23, the teams will work cooperatively in a series of 3-on-3 basketball games using homegrown robots, mostly student designed.
One of the veteran groups, Team 100 from the Sequoia Union High School District in San Mateo County, California is going to the competition as a "wild card" participant. The team has had a long experience in the competition going back to 1995 (national champion.) In the path toward their current creation, the team found that what the basic design provided was not sufficient for the task.
Woodside High School junior Andrew Blatner, part of the electronics engineering crew for Team 100, said the standard CAN bus (controller area network) that the teams use in their projects was insufficient to deal with the communication between motor controllers. The team attempted to use a workaround that converted the ethernet signals. "That still didn't solve all the problems we were having in competition so we switched to direct communication to individual controllers."
Team advisor Laura Rhodes said another problem was a limitation on the number of inputs the project needed, so one of the team members, Ethan Anderson, Woodside High School senior, brought up the idea of using an Arduino development board to expand the available number of inputs. Anderson had some experience using Arduino in personal home projects and several advisors had additional input based on their experience.
A remarkable aspect of the project is how it mirrored problem solving efforts experienced by professional product development teams, as in the software phase of the project. Connor Wake, Sequoia High School senior and part of the software sub-team, said several new aspects of the competition created unique software control issues. The team decided early on to switch from National Instruments Labview to Wind River C++ to handle the use of cameras, motor controls for shooting the ball at different angles and speeds and to control intakes to avoid jamming. New team members had to be trained in the use of the tools and legacy code integrated.
What was unusual in the project development was the lack of "walls" between the sub teams. Wake spoke in detail of the various mechanical aspects of the robot, and Anderson demonstrated more than a working knowledge of the software difficulties.
Rhodes said the goals of Team 100 students have always been to acquire real–life skills and gain hands-on engineering experience. Originally, the team consisted of solely of Woodside High School students, but in 2003, a large group of students from Carlmont High School, a neighboring district school, joined the team, soon becoming a permanent addition. During recent seasons, Sequoia High School students have also been added to the roster, creating the current tri-school team. The team's primary sponsor is DreamWorks P.D.I.