Recently I had the pleasure of finding this lovely little article on the first competition I ever entered, which included a nice section about my own robotics team at the time.

Enthusiastic Perseverance

Conserve School’s “Steelers” from Land O Lakes, WI

From the moment this team walked into the morning interviews, their enthusiasm and work ethic caught the judges’ attention. Their robot did not pass inspection (bigger than the 18” cube restraint), their scoring mechanism was the wrong size for grabbing the softballs, and their autonomous mode wasn’t functional. After losing each of their first two matches, they went back to work with a smile. Their modifications, including the ability to score in autonomous mode, paid off as they won their next three matches. They were defeated in their last qualifying match and lost their robot’s arm in the process. Their response – high fiving their alliance partners, picking up their robot pieces, and going back to work.

Their perseverance paid off as they steadily rose in the rankings throughout the day, ending the qualifying matches as the captain for the 8th seeded alliance. Although they lost in the quarterfinals to the number 1 seeded alliance, the judges recognized their efforts with the “Amaze Award.” Conserve School is a small boarding school in a rural Northwoods Wisconsin community.

Well, that certainly brings back some memories. Here’s some pictures of the robot from that year:

3305 Robot Hanging

The robot, scoring the 15 point bonus for being off the ground.

The team in 2007 with our robot in starting configuration

The game was the first FVC game “Hangin-a-Round”. Robots were tasked with scoring softballs in high 24 inch goals for 3 points each. A large bonus ball doubled your score of the balls in these goals if it was on your half of the field. Being on a spinning platform in the middle at the end of the match got you 5 points. Hanging got you 15. Winning autonomous was 10.

The robot had a double jointed arm for scoring softballs. It wasn’t exactly structurally stable, and it put a LOT of force on the motors. We had two motors coupled for each joint, and we routinely rounded out the holes in the gears, or twisted the steel shafts. Case hardening these shafts was our design solution that got us through the tournament with the arm snapping maybe once or twice. The end effector was a little metal cage with a roller to suck balls in. I built that! I stole it from someone else, but I rebuilt it with lighter metal to make it a lot easier on our arm.

Our design process is a bit of a blur for me, but we initially had a huge problem figuring out how to get our arm to extend outward at the beginning of the match so that it could pick up balls. That’s where the second joint came from. Our initial solution was to use the linear Vex slides combined with a one way latch made of epoxy, but epoxy isn’t legal and we couldn’t figure out a way to make it latch into place. (The next year, Vex would release their rack and pinion set and using the linear slides would be easy…)

I was the sole programmer of the robot, and I didn’t know what I was doing. I got it to drive around, but I didn’t know how to use sensors on the bot to make an autonomous mode. For some strange reason I refused them or something. I ended up getting the bot for the entire week before competition and making a dead reckoning autonomous… that controlled a 2 joint arm, without sensors. This sucked.

What the article said at competition about our robot not passing inspection was an understatement of the difficulty we had. Our robot was designed to pick up women’s softballs. Those are a lot bigger than men’s softballs. We also were about an inch out of the size box vertically and horizontally (the top of the arm could rotate up to be taller than vertical or down to be bigger than horizontal). We skipped all our practice matches and worked to get the robot rebuilt. Changed wheels for a height drop. Shortened the end effector. Fixed some stuff. I networked with all the other teams and told them how great our bot totally was going to be. We passed inspection 30 seconds before our first match, and being incredibly intelligent I left the teleop jumper in the bot. Whoops.

Oh, but the autonomous doesn’t work now that the arm’s shorter. So I had to redo that and got it to drop the balls correctly sometimes. We finally get it going and score points slowly… Then in one key match our alliance partner doesn’t have a moving robot. We all rushed to their pit and built it with them so we would at least have an annoyer in that match. The judges seemed to think it was cool that we did that, but really it just seemed like the kind of thing to do. Turns out, that would be the most important act of gracious professionalism I’d ever do. More about that one in some other blog post.

Anyway, we finally had a match where we scored in auto, won in auto, and hung from the bar. After that… Arm snaps. Oh, and it turns out through picking and picking that we’re an alliance captain. I grab a few random team numbers and shout them at the rep and we get knocked out fast in the quarterfinals. Ending on a happy note because we won the Amaze award, we go home ready for next year. We soon learn that we’re on the Champs waitlist, and we almost make it off… but then we didn’t.

I learned a lot that year about robotics. I was inspired to compete again after being dismissed from Conserve School. I wanted to build an out of the box design like the one that won the event there. I wanted to beat my old school at the same tournament. Little did I know that this would lead where it did… but the rest of the story will have to wait a little while.