As build season comes to a close, M-SET preps for competitions

March 5, 2020 — by Andy Chen and Kaasha Minocha
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Seniors Brandon Nguyen and Sahaj Rastogi participate in the FRC Regional Championship last year. The team went to World Championships, losing in the semifinals.

Members of the robotics club’s First Robotics Competition (FRC) team immerse themselves in designing, building, and testing their robot as their 6-week build season begins.

It was 1 a.m. on a weekday in February, and senior Mitra Mokhlesi was still in the robotics room working to finish wiring the last motor to the 4-foot robot. She had spent 40 hours that week  to meet the deadlines of the club’s jam-packed schedule.

The M-SET Fish are part of the schools Mechanical-Science and Engineering Team (M-SET) program. M-SET consists of four First Technical Challenge (FTC) teams, each containing 15 students, and one First Robotics Challenge (FRC) team, with 60 students — these 120 total students combined are the largest club on campus. 

FRC’s six-week build season began on Jan. 4. During the build season, they  assemble, tune, test and refine their robot before they prepare for competition season. The two competitions the team are participating in this year include the Central Valley Regional in Fresno on March 11 and the Monterey Bay Regional on March 25. Each competition lasts for four days and teams go through qualification matches followed by elimination matches, quarterfinals, semifinals and finally finals.

Last year, FRC had one of its best seasons ever and even went to the FRC World Championship in Houston. There, they were able to participate in elimination matches, but lost in the semi-finals. 

The beginning of the season is marked by the FRC kickoff event, in which the objectives of the current year’s game are released and materials relevant to the game are supplied. This year, the game’s mission is to gain points by weaving through obstacles to score yellow balls, known as power cells, into various holes with different heights (power ports), and teams can earn additional points by hanging their robot on a metal bar at the end of the game.  

The 60 members have been split into different teams responsible for different components, called modules: electronics and pneumatics, software, hardware and manufacturing. 

The different modules need to coordinate well to finish building within their time constraints. As the hardware team builds the actual body of the robot, electronics gets started on wiring and designing an electronics board. In the last few weeks of the six-week build season, software receives the robot to program its functions. 

The most crucial way to score in this year’s game is by shooting balls, called power cells, into specific places. 

“Shooting is worth the most points, so we are aiming to accomplish that function, because for example, out of a 200 point game, 120 points would come from shooting,” said Bob France, one of the lead mentors of the club, and whose alumni sons were both a key part of the program. 

In order to accomplish this collection of tasks in a timely manner, as well as to make sure everyone present has a role, the software and hardware teams work in parallel. While the hardware team builds various parts for the robot, the software team tests other parts by using contraptions like the board bot — the competition robot’s control system put on a board of wood instead of a normal drivetrain, saving resources. 

Additionally, the software team dedicates six members to “scout” other teams, adding details about their matches into a custom built interface in an effort to find potential team members or competition. 

In previous years, after the six-week build period ended, teams were required to put their competition robots in a bag until competition, meaning that teams couldn’t work on their robots anymore. As such, the team tested additional parts on their separate practice robot and updated the competition robot in the eight-hour period directly before their first match.

This year, FRC is not enforcing a bag policy, so teams will be able to work on their competition or final robot right up until their first competition. 

France is unsure if the no-bag policy is good for the team as the policy gives the Fish both advantages and disadvantages. 

According to France, one theory for FIRST introducing the new policy is that for teams that can’t afford to build two robots, they will now be able to work on it all the way up to the competition, whereas before, they would have been sitting ducks. 

France explained the counterpoint to this theory is that all the teams get to work on their robots, so now the top teams get to keep their competition robots out and just keep working on it the whole time, so he doesn’t think it’s going to help as much as some are hoping since it equally benefits the other good teams. 

 According to France, with the no-bag policy, the extra time to work on the final robot would be equivalent to two to three weeks of practice for the better teams — something he sees as a disadvantage. 

France is also worried that if the team is practicing with the competition robot or tuning it and then someone damages it, then it’s damaged and could be expensive to fix.

Partially because of the new no-bag policy being enforced, the team recently changed its strategy a little bit to be more aggressive. 

“It’s less of a chance that we are going to do average and more of a chance that we’re going to do either really great or bad, so it depends on how we execute,” France said. 

France explained that the team has decided to make the robot like a transformer. He said there’s a point of the field that’s very low, and so you want to be tall for shooting and grabbing the bar and climbing up, but you also want to be low to go under the “trench.”

“The idea is to have a low robot to duck under the trench, and then when the robot gets to the shooting part and the hanging part the robot, will kind of pivot and stretch out, and that adds a lot of complexity into the design of the robot, so it’s pretty much, go big or go home,” France said.

Overall, France foresees a decent year for the team. While the number of truly dedicated, experienced participants has been about the same as in past years, at least every subteam has a capable lead, he said. 

Ultimately, even if the team doesn’t perform well, France is sure that this year will be a valuable learning experience for members of the team, especially sophomores, who he called the “future of the club.”

“For us, it’s definitely sort of a ‘changing of the garden’ kind of thing,” France said. “We have a couple of sophomores that we’re trying to train up, so that they’ll be able to teach upcoming students in the coming years.”