The crazy, caffeine-filled, adrenaline-driven world of robotics

March 21, 2018 — by Elaine Fan and Siva Sambasivam

Loud rock music thrums from the lit interior of the robotics room, echoing into the darkened music quad. Tools and parts are strewn over every available surface of the repurposed art room. A kitchen area holds snacks for the long night of work ahead, next to which sophomore Rohan Rao adjusts a 3D figure on a desktop monitor. Further into the back of the room, junior Divya Aggarwal wires an intricate circuit board, while junior Ian Le stands before a line of machines and carefully operates a lathe with the guidance of a mentor.

Every member of FRC team 649 — students, parents and mentors — has a role, and the product of their combined work comes together in the centerpiece of the room: their Magikarp robot.

Or, at least a replica of the robot the team took into competition last weekend for the first time — with mixed results.

The original Magikarp, sporting an arm and a metallic frame that extends as a lift, stands completed in the adjacent room, covered entirely in a plastic bag. After the kickoff date on Jan. 6, in which the 2018 FIRST Robotics Competition game was revealed to teams across the world through an explanatory animation, each team was given exactly six weeks to complete their robot.

Immediately after kickoff, the team meets the next day to go over game rules, talk out design and sketch out their goals for the season. Design meetings continue for three to five days in one week until the team comes to a conclusion, after which members divide themselves into subsystems and begin prototyping.

During this building season, leadership members like team president Akhilesh Bellathur, hardware lead Ankur Garg and software lead Bassil Shama, along with a dozen other active FRC members might toil in the robotics room until 3 or 4 a.m. to complete the robot. Other members like junior Graham Kingston work extensively at home as well. At the end of the six weeks, the robot is bagged and members are prohibited from touching it until competition.

The game

With their first regional competition at San Francisco on March 16 behind them and the Central Valley regionals approaching two weeks after, FRC team 649 is steadily building and improving their practice bot. After their robot severely broke in the last match of semi finals, the team is planning on improving the lift and their intake mechanism, as well as making the electronics more robust and reliable, according to junior Ian Le. If the team had made it to finals, they would have gone to the world competition.

Though less aesthetically pleasing, the practice bot provides opportunities for members to figure out errors in design and code as well as identify areas where they could improve. In addition, the team can bring up to 30 pounds of extra parts to modify the official robot at competition.

The 2018 game is named FIRST Power Up and is largely themed around video games. Alliances of multiple FRC teams use two robots to move power cubes to different places around the field, earning points each time they do so successfully. For example, there is a scale in the middle and two switches on each side of the competition field, on which teams place power cubes. For every second that a team has the scale or switch tipping in their favor, that team earns one point.

Teams can also add power cubes to their vault, where they can earn temporary power-ups, or boosters, throughout the game. The force power up allows a team to control the switch and scale; the boost power up increases scoring for ten seconds. Whichever alliance has the most points after the two-minute-and-30-second competition ends up winning the match.

Trumping other options such as “Bodacious Beluga,” their robot was dubbed Magikarp after the Pokemon of the same name as a nod to both the theme of the competition and the M-SET mascot, the fish.

Preparation under mentor guidance

In the weeks leading up to competition season, the M-SET FRC team constructed a replica of the course in the new Media Arts Program annex, where they often test the functions of the robot and hold meetings.

Space remains a major obstacle for M-SET, especially as their room has increasingly deteriorated in recent years. Holes in the roof often leak water into the building, damaging materials, and asbestos has been found in the closet.

“I honestly feel that we should have a bigger space to work,” Bellathur said. “And it could be this MAP annex, or it could be anything. But we definitely need a bigger space to work because right now it’s not enough.”

Scattered among various wooden structures, including a  large wooden seesaw-like scale, in the spacious MAP room, the team members discussed for more than two hours what needed to be accomplished, while consistently confiding in the team mentors.

Mentors include team coordinator Bob France, who regularly supplies advice and experience despite having passed the head mentor role to parents Sheeba Garg and Vikas Garg last year. Parent Mitchell Lichtenberg, the machine mentor, operates machinery to help students construct parts.

Although the students do the vast majority of the brainstorming, planning and execution, team mentors like Lichtenberg are always there to help when the students face technical challenges, and more often than not, get off task.

“They tend to get distracted a lot,” Mr. Garg said. “The mentors are there to help them if they get stuck and to keep them on track.”

But despite their sometimes lackadaisical and easy-going approach, members kick it into another gear when the competition approaches.

“Every year we are always behind schedule from where I would like us to be, but we always pull it off at the last minute,” Mr. Garg said.

To pull it off, many of the 55 members on the team play an integral role. The roles include 3D modeling parts of the robot, coding, operating the machinery, hardware management and a host of other jobs that all need to be completed within a span of under two months. With the sheer amount of work that must be completed, M-SET cannot simply operate on a regimented schedule like any other club.

“There’s more control,” Shama said. “You get to build the robot, but there’s also things like managing money, a lot of time management and group work skills. There’s a lot of different things you can do. It feels like as much time as you put into it, you can still keep getting more out.”


The learning curve

Although the members of FRC 649 can now speak in technical jargon without blinking an eye, things were not always this way; many students enter M-SET with little to no prior experience in robotics. Members learn basics in FTC, which builds smaller robots that are generally simpler design wise. Entering FRC comes with a learning curve, and students must go through student-taught training on skills such as machinery, coding, wiring and 3D modeling in the off-season.

In fact, of the 55 registered members, only about 15 to 20 are active members.

“If you want to be committed in this club, it can be very time consuming,” Bellathur said. “If you don’t have the initiative to take on roles yourself, and to sort of learn yourself, it’s harder to get more out of it. No one’s gonna tell you ‘we need help.’”

Shama directly entered FRC as a freshman, breaking the standard path of first entering one of the four FTC teams. He found the club to be similar to a “meritocracy,” where he gradually had to learn to be more self-motivated. In his experience, for students who entered the club at the insistence of their parents for the sheer purpose of adding to their resumes, “it doesn’t really work out.”

Rather, if the students were willing to do work and actually showed interest in robotics, there were many opportunities to get involved. Shama’s key advice for prospective robotics members is to not be afraid of asking for something to do.

“Just keep asking,” he said.

For the students who do sacrifice the time necessary to improve their robotics skills, the improvement is easily noticeable.

“[Many of these kids] were on the FTC team in freshman year, and they have learned a lot in the last two years. They have grown a lot together,” Mr. Garg said.


Competition atmosphere

Despite all the hard work and time put into preparing for the competition, things don’t always go as planned when the competition date arrives. Even without last-minute dilemmas, like sparking batteries or smoking potentiometers, the atmosphere at competitions is chaotic and exhilarating. There are two main aspects to the FRC experience.

Members of the drive team like Le, Bellathur and Garg spend much of their time on their feet in the limited space of the pit, running their bot, making quick fixes or running back and forth to retrieve parts. Arriving at 7:30 a.m. and leaving late into the night, they can see their step counts reach up to 20,000 steps or 10 miles.

On the other hand, scouters like Shama and Jennifer Li spend hours at a time sitting in the stands. The job of these members is to choose other teams to pair up with for the elimination bracket of the tournament, which pits alliances of three robots each against each other. Scouters must observe matches to see who they want to work with and how other teams can fit in with their robot.

“I think that’s what a lot of people don’t realize about tournaments: there’s a lot that goes on. You’re not just sitting there watching robots,” Bellathur said.

Another way to reach the ultimate goal of the world competition is to win the  Chairman’s Award, which goes beyond the pure robot-building aspect of the club. Through Chairman’s, M-SET can show all the outreach it has accomplished in trying to involve people in STEM, and getting students interested in robotics. It also serves to pass down club history to underclassmen, according to Le.

Every year, the Saratoga Robotics team ranks among the best in the area and it is their work ethic that keeps them competitive despite often difficult circumstances. And although the team appears extremely well-established, it’s important to note that M-SET was only founded in 2009 after its predecessor, the Saratoga Robotics Team (SRT), was shut down due to hacking allegations and misbehavior. While still incorporating some aspects of SRT, the new Mechanical Science and Engineering Team was formed with the aim of creating a more serious robotics team.

Nevertheless, FRC team 649 retains a personality unlike that of any other club in the school, whether they’re playing the “Chariots of Fire” theme song the first time they power on the robot, blasting “questionable” songs in the robotics room on a group veto system or yelling over each other in a “polite and productive” way to make group decisions.

“There’s never a dull day in robotics,” Le said.


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