Bots on Parade: Boston University Academy at FIRST Regional Competition

Warning: this essay is very long. Make sure you have a few minutes free before you start it.

At the Boston FIRST Regional Robotics Competition, taking place April 7-9 at Boston University’s Agganis Arena, you can find Rambots, Terrorbots and Devil Botz. RoboRebels, Tigertrons and IgKnighters. Kwarqs, Disco Techs and … Cyber Gnomes.

By comparison, Boston University Academy’s team name – Overclocked, an engineering term for running a computer’s central processing unit faster than specified by the manufacturer to increase its performance – seems tame.

FIRST, which stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, best known as the inventor of the Segway Personal Transporter. Kamen also invented the first insulin pump and the iBOT, an all-terrain electric wheelchair, among many inventions and patents.

FIRST’s website says its mission is “to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders.” Its first competition was in 1992, with 28 teams competing in New Hampshire. The specific game changes each year, and FIRST’s website says more than 2000 teams are now compete in the 48 regional events across the world and the championship in St. Louis.

For Boston FIRST, Agganis Arena is divided into two halves. In the arena, teams are randomly assigned to two teams of three, then remote-control their robots to grab inflatable inner tubes shaped like the FIRST logo – red triangle, white circle, blue square – and hang them on pegs to score points. In the pit, just like in auto racing, teams will try to repair their damaged robots before the next match.

Teams can score up to 30 points in the final 15 seconds of the match by having their “minibot” – a small, pre-programmed robot usually about the size of a forearm – shoot straight up a pole without remote control. Overclocked’s minibot falls off the main robot every time before deployment, so the team spends most of its repair time trying to fix this.

Overclocked relies on cardboard and gray duct tape for quick repairs. The team is constantly trying to secure its minibot, an aluminum, diamond-shaped machine with a set of double-stacked wheels that act as clamps, to the main robot, named “RoboRhett” (after BU’s mascot, Rhett the Terrier). RoboRhett is a five-foot, 120-pound, three-dimensional right triangle, with an arm to grab and hang pegs and a tray to deploy the minibot. Matthew Rajcok, a BU Academy junior from Cambridge, says that the triangle is the sturdiest basic geometric shape: very difficult to bend.

The arm is connected to a vertical plastic frame, which moves up and down using a winch and a black nylon tether. Switches at each end of the frame tell the winch when to stop winding. Overclocked members tell the robot what height to lower or raise the arm to using joysticks and preprogrammed sensors on the arm.

The arm rotates using a pulley, with a pneumatic claw at the end that can only spring open and clamp shut. The team uses different combinations of arm-height and rotation to hang the shapes on the different rows of pegs.

The minibot’s tray is connected to another black nylon tether, which moves the tray forward and backward using a four-axle winch. A small pneumatic clamp on the tray holds the minibot in place until it is deployed for the race. A gray 12-volt battery powers RoboRhett from its chamber on the robot’s base, while a separate, tiny battery powers the motor on the minibot.

Nima Badizadegan, a junior from Newton, is the team’s programmer, and he is especially proud of the driving system. RoboRhett, built from January 8 to February 12, has four wheels, with 45-degree treads circling them. Badizadegan explains that because each wheel can be individually controlled based on the positions of two of Overclocked’s three joysticks (the third controls the arm and the minibot tray), RoboRhett in any way Overclocked wants.

Badizadegan says it took him 10-15 hours of calibration to get the driving system right, but it pays off in the first match. Another robot drives into RoboRhett to block it, but Overclocked’s driver – junior Will Persampieri, also team-captain – repositions the joysticks. RoboRhett backs up easily, then drives forward with enough force to knock the other robot backwards a foot. Persampieri, arm-controller Andrew Connors (a sophomore from North Reading) and advisor Jeff Stout (a 27-year-old from Denver who will teach physics at BU Academy next year) shout with excitement.

The word “robot” was first used by Czech writer Karel Čapek in his 1921 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). The word comes from the Czech noun “robota,” which means labor, and in an article that appears on his website, Čapek credits the word’s invention to his brother Josef. Science and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov coined the term “robotics” in his 1941 short story “Liar!”

During its 10 matches, Overclocked never gets its minibot to deploy properly, no matter how much cardboard they strap on to hold it in place or how often they test it on a practice pole. When RoboRhett stops, forward momentum often pulls the minibot off the tray and it tumbles to the arena floor. Even when the minibot stays on until fully deployed, it’s weighted heavily towards its diamond-shaped back, and the wheels never clamp on hard enough to trigger the Tetrix-brand motor that makes it move.

Fritz Lang’s 1927 film “Metropolis” showed the first ever robot in a movie: the golden, female-looking Maschinenmensch (German for “machine-human”). The Maschinenmensch has had widespread influence on popular culture, from the design for the C-3PO robot in the “Star Wars” films to costumes by pop singers such as Beyoncé and Lady Gaga.

But the robots at Agganis bare little resemblance to Fritz Lang’s flash and elegance. These skeletal robots are built for function, most of them relying on that basic triangular shape. They’re built from aluminum, not gold, with some plastic for the non-structural parts. A long chain runs behind RoboRhett’s arm-frame to keep the wires from getting caught.

As teams hover and make repairs, the robots look like racecars, complete with sponsor stickers covering them. Some sponsors, such as Dunkin Donuts and Panera Bread, have donated food. Others, such as Shaw’s and JC Penney, have donated money. Still others, such as technology companies Lockheed Martin and Pinpoint Laser Systems, have sent engineers to consult with teams and help them troubleshoot their robots.

It’s not just the minibot that needs constant repair. RoboRhett takes a beating on the floor, repeatedly slamming and being slammed into by other robots. A lack of bolting along the claw results in a piece getting sheared off during the first match. The arm looks more twisted and bent out of shape after each subsequent match. Overclocked members use an automatic drill to attach L-shaped aluminum pieces to the frame after the fourth match, and Rajcok uses a red hand saw to cut extra lengths, “just in case.” He says the L-shape is the ideal reinforcing shape – it distributes weight across both the horizontal and vertical axes, and weighs less than a U- or square-shaped rod.

Sometimes Overclock engineers use fine tools, such as allen wrenches with tiny hex keys (L-shaped hexagonal screwdrivers) to tighten lose bolts. Sometimes they use blunt force, hammering the frame to fix an out-of-joint piece of aluminum or plastic.

When someone uses a Dremel rotary drill to sheer off small bits of loose metal, everyone holds his or her nose or backs away, the smell of burning metal suddenly filling the air.

Nearby, another team’s robot burns out a motor, gray smoke trickling upwards.

“Motors get hot,” says Alex Barden, a BU Academy junior from Milton, as people clear the area.

The pit at Agganis is not just a series of repair booths, though each booth has carefully arranged shelves lined with power tools and spare batteries, and plastic bins filled with sheet metal. Above one booth, a tiny rocket ship orbits a fluorescent green paper lantern. Next to another booth, a giant silver stack ends in a head resembling the Tin Man from “The Wizard of Oz.” A humidifier inside blows steam out its conic hat.

Every uniform is also a costume. Students (the FIRST Robotics Challenge is for high school students; FIRST has other competitions for other age groups) and their advisors wear leprechaun hats, gnome hats, construction hats (with and without lights), train-conductor hats and hats shaped like cow heads. They wear red capes, blue capes and green sequined capes.

Everyone, without fail, wears safety goggles. Constant shouts of “robot!” warn teams of other robots moving through the aisles to the pre-match queues.

Devils and wizards walk side by side, as do a witch and a princess (those two also dance together in the spectator seats). An orange rebel shares the floor with a blue patriot. There are two lions and a tiger, but no bears. Oh my.

In the stands, a crowd fills up the seats normally reserved for BU students at hockey games. The JumboTron replays the matches. The public address system blasts music, from oldies to contemporary. The crowd tries to recall the dance moves to Los del Río’s “Macarena,” with limited success. The Village People’s “YMCA” is executed in far better unison.

Robots and robotics might be 20th century words, but the concept of automated machines, even humanoid machines, dates back to at least the third century BC and the Chinese text Lie Zi‘s tale of an artificer and his artificial man.

In the first century, Heron of Alexandria described over 100 automated devices in his Pneumata and Automata.

In religion, a clay humanoid called the Golem has roots in Jewish folklore that date back to at least 200, with stories appearing in the Talmud, a central text of Jewish ethics, law and philosophy. In Norse mythology, the Younger Edda, written around 1220, tells of a clay giant called the Mistcalf built to aid a troll in his battle with the god Thor.

Leonardo da Vinci designed a mechanical knight in 1495.

American engineer Norbert Wiener introduced cybernetics, the study of decision-making processes and regulatory systems that made practical robotics possible, in 1948.

The first industrial robot, Unimate, was installed at a General Motors assembly plant in New Jersey in 1961. It was programmed to automatically move die-castings – molten metals hardened into specific shapes using fabrication molds – from the assembly line and weld them onto car bodies. The robots at Agganis Arena must be programmed to automatically hang a yellow circular “Ubertube” (another inflatable shape) on a peg in the opening 15 seconds, called the autonomous period. Doing so will earn a team six points on the top row (approximately 11 feet off the ground), four on the middle row, and two on the bottom row.

RoboRhett doesn’t have a sensor to realign itself during the autonomous period; it can only raise its arm to a preset height, drive in a straight line for a preset length of time, release its claw, then back up. If it’s not lined up exactly right, RoboRhett will not release the Ubertube at the right moment.

Persampieri (or backup driver Harrison Krowas for the matches when Persampieri is in class) gets down on the ground next to RoboRhett before each race. He relies entirely on line-of-sight judgment, constantly rotating RoboRhett a degree clockwise or counterclockwise, pushing it mere inches to the left or the right.

Persampieri doesn’t get the positioning right until the team’s 10th and final match.

Physicist and electrical engineer Nikola Tesla introduced the first radio-controlled vessel in 1898. After the autonomous period ends, the two-minute, 15-second remote-control period begins, when teams will try to hang as many inflatable shapes as possible on the pegs.

Shapes on the top row are worth three points each, the middle pegs two, the bottom pegs one. Hanging a shape on the same peg as an Ubertube doubles that shape’s score.

Forming the FIRST logo all on the same row doubles a team’s score for that row. Forming the logo on the highest row will score, 18 points, 24 if the Ubertube is also there.

Persampieri uses two black joysticks to drive RoboRhett from the pegs to the feeding lanes on the opposite ends of the floor. As he drives RoboRhett over, he presses one of three buttons covered with red, white or blue vinyl tape. Each button lights up a tiny light emitting diode on RoboRhett to signal his teammate which shape he wants. When RoboRhett enters the lane, a teammate feeds the requested shape through an elliptical hole cut in the thick plastic that lines the arena, then holds up a hand, signaling Connors to close the claw and Persampieri to drive away.

RoboRhett performs very well during the remote-control period in every match. Persampieri and Connors usually hang at least three tubes, usually on the highest row of pegs.

The only bad round is the fifth, when the laptop that wirelessly controls RoboRhett’s computer loses its connection, and RoboRhett stops dead after just a few seconds. After the match, Badizadegan decides the problem is mechanical, that the port connecting the laptop to the bridge that transmits to RoboRhett is damaged. For the rest of the competition, whichever advisor is on the arena floor with Persampieri and Connors has to hold the laptop-bridge cable in place.

Overclocked has 35 members, so not all of them work on design and repair, instead focusing on fundraising, outreach to middle school students, and safety maintenance. Faculty advisor Gary Garber and Stout stress that this team is run almost entirely by the BU Academy students, with the advisors there mostly to answer questions and write grant proposals. When Rajcok sends younger teammates to other teams to form alliances on the second day of competition, he tells them to stress RoboRhett’s mobility and claw system.

Persampieri grows increasingly agitated across Thursday’s practice day and Friday’s first day of competition. The team goes out for lunch together on Thursday, but Persampieri stays behind to work alone. When an alternate minibot flies up Overclocked’s practice pole, Persampieri’s eyes go wide. When he explains how RoboRhett works to visitors on Friday, he kicks his legs back and forth. When Friday’s competition ends, he sits by himself in the top row of seats for a presentation until girlfriend Sarah Magid joins him.

Persampieri’s nervous energy boils over before the first match begins on Saturday, the final day of competition. He screams at his team about properly positioning the zip-ties that hold the minibot’s battery in place.

When asked about Persampieri’s reaction, Rajcok supports his captain, agreeing that Persampieri’s issue was a valid one that the team should have already addressed. But the day before, Persampieri had a far more accepting opinion of errors.

“It’s part of the process to try things that don’t work,” Rajcok says on Friday. “There’s no point in getting pissed.”

Rajcok, Connors and Stout all say that Persampieri’s general engineering knowledge and deep understanding of RoboRhett’s design and capabilities make him a good captain.

By Saturday afternoon, Persampieri’s mood has lightened. When safety instructor Sarah Hyman, a BU Academy junior from Swampscott, reads proper lifting instructions to the team, Persampieri jokes with Connors as they lift RoboRhett onto its cart.

“Shortening the communication process is essential to safety,” he yells sarcastically as he barks one-word commands at Connors. Everyone laughs. Later, he adds, “No, you’re using your back!”

After the round robin competition ends, the eight teams that have scored the highest individually are allowed to choose two teams from the rest of the playing field (including the other top seven scorers) to compete in the three-round, single-elimination playoffs. Overclocked, which goes 3-7 in its 10 matches and finishes ranked 37 out of 53 teams, is not selected.

TJ2 from Bridgewater-Raynam (Mass.) Regional High School wins the competition for the second straight year. Overclocked wins the Regional Chairman’s Award, which FIRST promotional literature calls “FIRST’s most prestigious award.” The booklet says the award “honors the team that best represents a model for other teams to emulate and best embodies the purposes and goals of FIRST.”

Stout and Barden agree that while RoboRhett worked great, the minibot needed a better design and better communication between the design and deployment teams.

Stout also says that Overclocked lived up to the FIRST core value of “gracious professionalism,” the willingness to aid and assist other teams even if they might use that aid to later beat you, despite the problems they faced during the competition.

“There was a lot of stress,” says Stout. “I felt the stress, I got frustrated at times, and it’s hard to swallow that. I didn’t see a single incident of somebody losing their temper or losing their patience.”

Says Barden after the selection process, “We’re a bit disappointed, but we learned that we’re going in the right direction in terms of organization, outreach, construction techniques, everything. Going up, we’re not quite there yet.”

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