The FIRST Robotics Competition is an annual, global team-based event for school students that participants have called “the hardest fun you’ll ever have.”
To the untrained eye, the competition can appear as a manic explosion of activity; balls flying through the air, robots zipping around an enclosed stadium, and cheering and screaming participants and audience as the event gets underway.
Each year, the competition starts afresh with a new design challenge. Student teams are given a strictly controlled six-week time limit to raise funds, develop team branding, and build and program an industrial-scale robot to participate in the complex game-playing tasks of manipulating shapes, throwing balls, or shooting discs to out-score opponents over a timed period.
For 2018, the theme was inspired by retro 8-bit video games with teams required to manipulate power cubes (similar to milk crates), “trade” power cubes in-game for power-ups, create alliances and other strategic challenges to score points, and beat competitors on the court.
The joys of mentoring
Student teams are guided in this challenge by industry and alumni mentors. For the past few years, Lauren O’Connor, a Program Manager at Invetech, has been focused on improving the participation of girls in STEM fields. As part of this passion, she has mentored the Melbourne RoboCats team, an all-girl high school team aged 12 – 18, operating via Swinburne University. The girls do have some experience under their belt, this being the fourth year of their team’s participation.
Early in 2018, Lauren kicked off her participation by devoting a two-week block of her vacation (and many weekends thereafter) guiding and mentoring the RoboCats in preparation for the 2018 South Pacific Regionals which was recently held in Sydney, Australia.
“I want to break a common perception for young women that engineering is hard, as I think it’s a key reason why we don’t see more women in the field. Engineering is challenging and rewarding and cool — and you get to build robots.”
Lauren assisted the team with some of the more technically challenging elements from developing the remote control for the drive system and associated pneumatics, to helping guide competition strategy.
At the end of six weeks, the team had developed a robot that could move around, manipulate cubes on the field, and theoretically attach to game field structures to raise itself into the air for the final challenge of the game. Lauren was confident she had helped craft a team that was primed to compete!
The Sydney competition attracted 40 teams from Australia, Turkey, Taiwan, and India, who gathered with a common goal to compete, socialize, learn from and help each other in the spirit of Gracious Professionalism – a core value of the competition.
Day one of competition was allocated to testing, robot safety inspections and practice matches. Critically, the team tested and fine-tuned the important climbing function of the robot.
Days two and three were then an intense mix of competition, troubleshooting, improving, more testing, and presentation of the robot design and team to the competition judges.
By midday on day three, the final rankings for the teams were announced, with the RoboCats making it into the finals for the second year in a row!
A nail-biting quarterfinal ensued, the team winning two out of three matches, and the RoboCats through to the semi-finals, which sadly, is where the journey ended.
On the plus-side, the team finished the day having improved both on overall ranking and the quality and reliability of the robot compared to the previous year. Furthermore, the team collected the Imagery Award for outstanding visual aesthetic integration of machine and team.
With another event over, Lauren and Team RoboCats returned home, heads full of inspiration and improvement ideas, and plans to improve again next year.