Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Going to the World Championship Again!

Never count The Brainstormers out.  Ever.  That has never, ever been so apparent as the last two weeks.  After the stunning win at the MA States the team had only one weekend to regroup and get ready for the FTC East Super Regional in Scranton, PA.  This is shorter than normal due to the Feb vacation schedule for MA public schools which delayed our competition for two weeks.

Hours before snow starts falling - time to kick out some of
these kids for the blizzard so the team on the couch with
laptops has exclusive access to test the robot.  Notice it is
about 11pm.
Working throughout the blizzard - about nine inches outside
at this point and hour eight of coding.
So we were in high gear - realizing that our autonomous program needed some big work to make it more reliable.  The kids made a plan and as luck would have it, half are in private school and their two-week March vacation started that weekend.  So if you have been following along for years, you know what that means.  They live here.  And we had a blizzard in the forecast, so I really mean they lived here.  I went out for tons of driveway salt and food, food, food.  Groups were scheduled in for work blocks and the programmers with mechanical support team were sequestered here for the duration of the snow.  I can say that for every snow storm that shuts down school for the last three years - my house has had the team staying in it.  As soon as school is called - they load in cars and drive here to beat the snow.  It's like getting a free weekend to work.  It is also fun in a funky work-play way and this time I had to beat the rest of the team off with a stick.   I got text messages from those not scheduled to be part of the 'snow team' begging to be allowed to come and get snowed in and help.  But we really needed the programmers to be heads down so we held our ground much to their consternation.  The record was two kids who announced that the day we left for competition that they had been at our house for six days straight.

Part of the food shopping - pounds of flour and sugar and chocolate chips.  There must be warm cookies.  Dozens of them. My husband and I do tag team - one of us in our office if we have to be and the other down there.  Sometimes I can embroider, answer emails, chart something, post but sometimes it is just too chaotic for me to get things done.

We got to where we wanted to be.  Loaded in the car and off.  Day 1, judging and inspection and running in the practice fields.  All going great.  Got the match list and did the analysis and figured out the driving teams.  We were in Match 1 on Saturday morning.  That was when all hell broke loose.  Match 1 started as soon as the opening ceremonies ended.  They wanted all the robots on the field ready to go.  Asked for them an hour beforehand on the field.  We checked to see if they would let us replace our battery just before match and got a yes.  These types of batteries drain fast after unplugging from the wall and if your system is sensor/control system heavy it really depends on battery voltage.  We had one ready - and at the last minute after the droning speeches, the field tech refused to allow us to change it.  We lost automatically as the robot wouldn't move well.  Top teams passing us by told us they knew every second the talks went on the batteries were draining on the field and it would be a devastating match for the few top performing robots sitting there on the field as they use all the systems and rely on consistent top battery voltage.  And that was the match that the judges all stood around to verify if all the talk in our judging session about the robot and its performance was for real.  Very, very, very bad luck.

You can't even see the robot as all hands are on it working
rapidly as possible.
Now we already had lost the top captain possibility immediately in Match 1 (81 matches) and likely judged awards too.  A few matches later, a robot slammed into ours and lodged its wheel in our collector in a way that took 10 minutes to take apart after the match was done.  Neither of us could score - Rob, a hockey player, was our driver and after trying to dislodge to win the match, dragged that robot all over the field and pressed beacons to get more points.  Was kinda hilarious in a desperate kinda way.  But after that - it really went to hell.  Our autonomous was failing and there was an error code on the phone (controls robot) that the field techs from FIRST couldn't identify for us either.  It stopped the robot dead in two matches.  We were loosing and falling in the rankings.  We were down to 14th.  To automatically go to Worlds - we needed to be in 5th or higher.  On hindsight, it likely was that slam and caught robot that caused all the problems after that.

What is the error???
The options to get to Worlds by controlling our destiny were closing rapidly and it was only 3pm the first day.  This is when the character of the team defines everything.  Do you mentally 'go home' or do you go into the locker room at half time no matter how much you are down and still thinking that there is 'no way you can lose this' and keep your focus.  They had 20 minutes between matches - programmers going over the code and calling off the commands and the drivers mentally going over what had happened on the field to find out what sensor, motor, etc. was where the mistakes happened.  Run it again on the practice field.  Get that error again.  No, No, YES!  There is the error again.  A fatal error - match loosing error.  It could be only these five things.  Almost run the robot on its cart back to the pit and throw everyone an allen key - rip the sides off that robot with its dozens of screws as fast as you can and replace encoders on the motors and get into the wiring to the sensor control module.

There really isn't a lot of room in a hotel room
for this - but they made do!  Eight of them
working at once in that space.
A queuer comes to the booth and informs us we have to get to the competition fields with the robot.  Someone runs to represent us while the others have the robot upside down and run the programs watching the wheel progressing and a sensor test.  Run off to the field.  The last match of the day is won but barely.  Another funny error.   Back to the booth and back to practice and try to figure out the problem.  People are patting us on the back - the autonomous is still failing but the driver control period stuff is working great - but they know we might be hosed and out of Worlds.  There is only one more match to go the next morning.

Testing in the hallway late night.  Funny how
many MA teams on floor (3 other ones) and
we were all up and working jabbering with
each other.
We left the field and went straight to dinner.  The team unwound and again - their character showed.  They were laughing and joking and enjoying themselves - anyone asking would never have thought that they were on the ropes.

I stood up and gave a speech in tears - the kinda speech that simultaneous wraps up a season and also tells them that they should never be counted out - it was halftime and time to show everyone what they are made of.  Right back to the hotel and they all showed up immediately in the room where the robot was.  I hung out in the chair and played devil's advocate for every decision made while my husband reviewed all the matches on video looking for clues to what was going wrong.  The kids stripped that robot down and decided to do some major surgery on two things - making the assumption that the USB connector on the sensor module was flaky and loose now.  It was something to see - 11pm and they are throwing modules across the room to be reconfigured by a computer programmer, kids labeling wiring so they can put it back in the right way.  And the tests in the hotel corridor to see if every system was working and hoping they found the problem (lucky every room was a robot team - understanding people on the floor).

Back the next morning for our early morning final qualifying match.  It was the most important one match they had ever run.  The pits open over an hour before any matches start and the team decided to all go in that extra early hour.  Up at 6 am and loading the 300 pound cart/robot into the truck.  They ran it over and over testing it and showing people that we had fixed the system.  One pair of the team assigned to go find the top ranked teams and drag them over to show them it was fixed and ready to rumble.

I couldn't watch the match.  Their entire season depended on winning it.  The team arrived in the pit before the match score showed in the pits.  But their faces and arms in the air proclaimed that they won it -- and it was obvious without scoring it.  Crushed it in fact.   There was now a slight chance they would live another day.  We moved up to 9th.  It was now possible.

They were selected by the third captain to make an alliance and then another team was chosen to make the three team alliance (Only two run per game).  Then the unbelievable thing happened.  A captain is allowed to run in each of the three matches in a bracket level (it is best two of three games).    The captain went to the ref and declared us captain of our alliance to allow us to run in each game.  It was an incredible show of faith and tremendous character on their part.  Our first game - we won and missed the world record by 10 points.

In the end - in a series of six matches - we became the division finalists.  Barely loosing the entire thing.  This morning after reviewing the video - we realized it wasn't because the autonomous didn't work, the beacon it was supposed to be pressing on our side wasn't set up correct for the match by the field resetters.  Guess we have to add that to the checklist I had wanted them to use (another lesson learned).

They are beyond team mates and friends -
they are family.  This pair has been tight
since 1st grade.  
Still, almost winning the whole thing didn't advance us - the same fluke that cost us a trip to worlds the first year.  We had to wait in the stands through all the awards and see if any duplicates allowed more robot teams to advance in order of rank.  I tried to keep track but got lost and thought we hadn't.  The kids expectantly looked at me and I had to shake my head and say I wasn't sure - didn't look good.  We had been here before...

So when they announced our name - they burst into a mix of screams and tears - all those big 6 foot boys.  And the many, many teams we have made friends with over the years cheered too.  When we left the stands, I turned left towards the pits - but they turned right.  They went off to shake hands to congratulate other teams, thank ones who had faith and partnered with us, and commiserate with others who weren't as fortunate to make the cut and live another day.  I looked back at it and realized they were all grown up.  We ran into our high school team in the parking lot and there was so much raw hugs and emotion that we were going to be both going and sharing the big event together.

Half the team got in my car for the long drive to Boston.  The most laid back of all the kids was literally screaming that 'they had never worked a day in their life and it was all starting NOW'.  It was like the inside of the vehicle was a huddle for a big football game.  They have six weeks and will be tearing the robot down to its bones to fix any moving parts, sensors and wires, rebuilding and reprogramming non-stop.   There will be an entirely new autonomous strategy.  They have a tremendous amount of work planned - because they are never satisfied with their performance and have learned from their own mistakes.

 I always would like them to win - but winning isn't always getting the actual trophy.  I think of the trials and tribulations they will face in the future. Disappointments in college admissions, heartaches, job loss, illness, and all the things that are life; I believe that they have been learning to believe, breath and problem solve and keep their eyes on the long term; that what ever is happening now is just a course adjustment on the path to what they want.  A bump to be run over with their size 13 feet.  I was talking to one of the kid's mom a few weeks ago about what they had been learning; grit, speaking, etc.  Her son is one of the original kids and she said 'no Tricia - its 'everything' about life.

You can never count them out - as they never give up.

Gotta make more cookies.


  1. First time reading about this. I have no knowledge of it at all. As I read, I cried and cheered for all these kids that I never knew about. Somehow I just clicked on it to look at the needlework. It is about life. My husband of 61 years passed away last Wed and the struggles these kids went through just spoke to me. Struggles that I am facing are so real and I was strengthed by theirs. Jack is in heaven with the God he loved and where I long to be, until then I will think of these great kids and how they are preparing for all of life. God bless you all. You now have a fan.

    1. Thank you Margaret - life is a struggle at times and we all have to learn to look at the positive side - so few can say that they loved the same person for 61 years. What a blessing.