Monday, March 20, 2017

Never Count The Brainstormers Out

Winning Inspire and Robot Game at
Vermont State Championship qualifying us early for
the Super Regional - a strategy that none of the top
teams in MA could understand asking us "why did you
travel to Vermont??"  After one of them didn't in MA and
has to stay home (they were in the semi finals of World's
last year), everyone understands why we did. 
I just arrived home from four days of competition in Scranton, PA at the FIRST Tech Challenge East Super Regional competition.  It was an epic roller coaster of emotion - culminating in half our team crying in the stands tears of relief and joy and clutching each other.

I stay quiet most of the season now on the blog as they have a huge presence in the FTC universe - their You Tube Channel just passed 51,000 views this season - to avoid giving away any of the robot design/strategy secrets.  

Two of our seniors with my son getting ready to drive at the
MA State Championship.  We had already qualified
for the East Super Regional so this competition didn't impact
us so we allowed the graduating seniors to learn to drive
and do one match in the competition as a thank you for
years of working behind the scenes.  As a coach it was more
than just that - it was strategic, I have learned that if the
majority of the team drives, they get more engaged  and invested
in the end product of their work.  We are the only team at
Worlds level that comes to competition with four
driving teams, equally competent.  Freaked our alliance
partners out yesterday as they had never seen that before and
made them nervous as we were switching people in and out
every one of the six matches together.  But it spreads the
responsibility out, the entire team understands the
minutiae of what is going on and the impact.  In the long
run - that small thing will be the success of everything.
You already heard about their outreach in the Boston Community Centers in an earlier post as well as their how-to-videos.  We are seeing the impact of them as the season has gone on, going out of state to competitions.  We have been having teams show up in our pit as soon as we arrive (we can't even unpack before a crowd gathers) and the first thing out of their mouth is: "I've watched your videos".  The next thing is either a discussion of how a how-to video helped their team build something for their robot this year or from a coach thanking them for the way they went about it - not giving an answer but showing a range of options with the pluses and minuses discussed so they are universal from year to year - teams being able to watch and think about the game and their strategy and decide what type of method might be best for them.  

We hadn't even been in the building for ten minutes and
already five teams had come by to look inside the bot.
The other reason they say 'I've watched your videos' is because we started posting competition videos two months ago to show capabilities to market ourselves to other teams because there are alliances that are formed at the end of the competition to go into eliminations, so people need to be familiar with your performance and abilities out of your state.  The person always next says - 'I can't believe you collect from both sides and can't figure out how you do it!'- this is followed by them sticking their face onto the robot and trying to see in it while our team kids explain how it works.  This is THE competitive advantage this year and I didn't want to let the cat out of the bag by saying anything about the team until now when it was too late for other teams to react.  It was the result of a shift in how we incorporated all the team into the robot design this year and one of the kids (keeping me awake on the drive back late last night) reflected on how slowing down and educating everyone on the mechanical side and then including everyone in the debate resulted in this mind-bending design.  It is a reflection of their extreme growth this year.

This year's game is a shooting game with many twists that make it hard.  The first 30 seconds are autonomous and the robot alliance (two randomly assigned teams in the qualifying matches) gets three balls to shoot.  The robot tries to automatically shoot them into their colored 'vortex' (basket) and then moves off towards two beacons that have buttons on them.  The robot tries to determine which side of the beacon is lit its team color (red or blue) and then press the button to turn both sides their color.  If the robot successfully finds the beacons and does that twice - the team gets two more balls to shoot with in the driver controlled period.  The point value for doing those things as well as the extra balls makes this autonomous period worth almost half the points of the entire game.  So if your autonomous doesn't work - you will almost always automatically loose the game at the higher level.

So in the driver controlled period, having only 5 balls to shoot makes the time to collect and shoot them crucial.  The more times you can go through that cycle, the more points you can make.  So our double collector design is key - we can collect balls without turning the robot around, wasting time.  The basket is designed to scatter the balls in all directions, making you drive all over the field and avoiding other robots to get the limited balls.  So if somehow you could shoot into the same wedge of the basket every time - your balls would roll to the same area of the matt making collection again faster.

The kids have spent almost seven months working on this mind-bending programming - designing a custom control system for the flywheel system that shoots the balls.  It takes the range from the basket automatically, compares that with the data they collected on how far the ball will go at a particular flywheel speed and chooses a speed.  Another sensor system turns the robot to align it to the basket, reducing the need for the driver to aim (and allowing us to have so many drivers).  But, when a ball goes through the shooter, it slows down the flywheel.  So the control system has to come quickly back to the same speed before the next ball feeds up so it will go to the same place in the basket.  And it has to do that without overshooting the speed by feeding too much power to the motors.  Most of the kids hadn't had enough calculus to do it - so one of the math wiz's on the team had to come over one day and figure out tons of derivatives on the white board.   And what an amazing thing - they all saw the real life application of calculus just as they are all starting to take it.

It works.  We are collecting and shooting more balls than any team.  But remember, that autonomous has to work for us to get to that stage.  Oh, and there is a dumb yoga ball on the field too.  It is bigger than the robot is allowed to be - you have to grab it and lift it six feet in the air and balance it on top of the basket at the end of the game for more points.

So their strategy has been working.  They won the Inspire (top judged award) and Robot game at their qualifier in December, qualifying for the MA State Championships.  Then the Inspire and Robot Game at the Vermont State Championship - getting one of the two spots to qualify for the East Super Regional.  

The video above shows a finals elimination match at the Vermont State Championship to show how the game works.  Our partner actually forgot to turn their robot on.  Once the autonomous starts - no hands inside the walls - so it couldn't be corrected.  So it was us against the other pair alone.  Our kids put up 225 points by ourselves and won.

Then two weeks ago, they went to the Massachusetts State Championships.  We had our seniors drive in three of the five competitions and had some troubles during the day with our autonomous.  We ended up 15th of 32 in the qualifying matches to everyone's surprise.  Massachusetts is actually one of the very hard regions of the world and two of the top teams decided to pair up specifically as they were sure they could beat us if they did - in a pretty confident way in fact.  And the numbers supported that - they should handily beat us in the robot game if we met up in the final eliminations as we three were the top performing teams over the whole season - way above everyone else.

MA State Championships, all the programmers around
the laptop on a table next to the queue during eliminations.
They can't have a computer in the competition area so they have
moved to be only two feet from it - going over the code
and making a change.  One kid hangs out
on the other side in a legal area getting tossed the phone
from the robot and running it to
them to upload the changes and then running it back.
No other team doing this.  And this competition didn't matter
in the grant scheme of things.
We were chosen by the second highest ranked team.  Once you have been in this for awhile - you build relationship with the other teams.  That team was with us in Lego for years - first competing against the Brainstormers and then with our Robot Revolution team.  We had flip flopped many times in qualifiers who was on top or second.  So we had respect for each other.  This is their rookie year in this metal robot division and we have shared much knowledge with them.  The team coach came up to me as his students were out there in the selection show and choosing us as their partner.  He told me that he knew we were having some sort of trouble with the robot (sensors) and that he knew we had already qualified so this competition had no impact on us at all.  'But', he said, 'I have been watching them all day and they are the only team that looks like their life depends on that robot working'.  He pointed at my son, whose jaw was set in a way that makes him look like Arnold Schwarzenegger.  He said 'look at that kid, look at his face, he isn't going to lose anything.  I don't care what problems your robot has been having.  They will solve it and I want you on OUR side.'

Our alliance partners and us at MA States.
Robot Champions again against all odds.
Well, we went into eliminations together and the other top pair ran their match against the 4th seed.  They put up 230 together and very confidently walked back to the tables to make minor fixes and watch our 2 vs 3 elimination match.   When the score went up of that match - they went white - 240 and we put up 80% of the point by ourselves.  My son said their hands were shaking.  Yes, we went head to head in the finals.  And yes, we beat them.  We also won the second highest judged award as we were ineligible for the top one, having already won it in another state.

And one of those two teams we beat was my son's high school.  The coach is the teacher for AP Programming and the entire team is in that class with David.  He walked into class on Monday and the leaders sheepishly admitted - yeah - we should have picked you as our partner instead.

Normally very humble, he responded simply 'Never count me out.'

Why that is important is tomorrow...


  1. Beyond impressive...I sort of figured something like might be coming one day when these kids made the 'old folks suits' way back when...Who knows what the far flung future will bring? But in these difficult times, it's kids like this who give me hope. :-D
    Bottom line for the math whizzes?

    The relevant equation is: Talent+Opportunity+Ambition+Support+Teamwork=Success for everyone! And then, there's always the side benefits - like the burnt toast for the coach...priceless!