The Robotics reality: 200 hours to build, 2 minutes to play

February 4, 2017 — by Victor Liu and Austin Wang

Robotics student discuss the large amount of hard work required to build a functioning robot.

For Saratoga’s 649 M-SET Fish robotics team, holding a solid 30-point lead in the closing seconds of the 2016 CalGames’s semifinals match last season at Fremont High School in October, a win and a ticket to the finals match seemed certain — right until the last 10 seconds.

Near the end of the match, after one robot was broken by an opposing robot, Saratoga’s team was unable to score enough points, and as a result, was overwhelmed by robots attacking in the last few seconds. At the end of the match, the live scoreboard read 234-233. Saratoga had lost by a single point.

In robotics, the success of hundreds of hours put into pre-competition preparation is determined by short matches, each less than 3 minutes long. In matches as short as these, a single second can make all the difference between a win and loss.

During winter break, dozens of robotics members found themselves bombarded with work. As their Feb. 21 deadline for completion of the robot approaches, teammates often spend more than 40 hours a week modifying their robots during their “build season.”

Though pit-crew members are available to perform last-minute touch-ups on the robot during competitions, tournament rankings are generally decided by the initial robot design and the experience of the controllers, both factors that involve large time commitment prior to tournaments.

Senior David Doluca is one of the team’s controllers this year, and he knows the importance of his role at higher levels of play where all the robots are well made and easily capable of performing their specific tasks, the difference between victory and defeat often lies in the hands of the person controlling the robot. After a 15-second period in which the robots autonomously set themselves up, both the auxiliary controllers and a driver, who steer the robot, take control of playing the game.

Senior Kyle France, the driver for the 649 M-SET Fish, said the path to victory lies in having both skilled drivers and a well-built robot. Due to the variations in technique and execution between matches, strategizing different methods during tournaments makes driving the robot especially challenging.

“Matches can be pretty unpredictable, so you have to react to different situations, which kind of keeps you on your toes,” France said.

In closely contested games, having a well-prepared and adaptable controller in the last crucial seconds of the match can make or break the outcome, which puts a huge burden on Doluca and France.

“You’re under a lot of stress because all your teammates are relying on you,” Doluca said. “Even though everyone on the team gets to work the robot, not everyone gets to drive it at once so you’re having a lot of faith put in you because you’re carrying out the execution of the match.”

Stress, adrenaline and enjoyment mount as the match progresses and the crowd screams while the team members try to create last-minute strategies to close out the game. Despite the challenges and stress of competing, France still finds driving the robot at tournaments to be the most enjoyable part of robotics.

“I enjoy building, but I’d say I like competing more because that's when you put your hard work to the test,” France said. “I like the intensity of the competition and since  everyone is really into competing, it makes it a really enjoyable environment.”


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