Friday, December 7, 2018

Off to the Super Regional

So after the MA state championship the kids made a radical change to their programming and installed some sensors to make it happen.  It was controversial on the team.  If we could pull it off, it would make us super competitive with Gluten Free and we had been jostling with them all season.
Deciding to entirely tear down the robot 48 hours before the
super regional to try to fix the electrical system

But sometimes those changes can be devastating, adding something to the system that throws the electrical system off.  And it was a spectacular problem.  Our control board - a $150 item kept frying randomly.  They would track down what looked to be the problem and rewire that and would get it back up for a day or two and back to the super challenging programming and it would fry again and they would find something else.  I would federal express a new board overnight and as it started adding up in costs and they couldn't get it to stop we were getting really, really worried.

They really get into the work
The programming guys were trying to build this system where the robot would know exactly where it was on the field and automatically pick up block and find its way back and deposit them during autonomous.  The game required 1 block pre-loaded to be deposited to get points in autonomous.  A small fraction of teams would drive blind into the pile and pick up one or two more and be able to get some of those in the box autonomously.  Gluten free was able to do two trips - getting between 3-6 in the box.  We were working to match that and increase the success ratio to a more guaranteed two trips and 4-5 in the box.  And all this would happen in 30 seconds.

Working with the designer of the control system at REV
Robotics to figure out this sensor-control system problem
But our electrical system kept frying.  I started teaching the boys how to do extreme failure analysis - map out all the changes and electrical failures and try to see a pattern.  We called the company who makes the electrical board and I led the kids through talking to them - make it their problem I said.  Show them you know your stuff and ask them to let you break the warrantee and open the case.  We sent them electrical measurements from the raw board.  It was a quandary.  The company kept Fed-Ex shipping us new boards - we spent $1000 on them.  There were a certain number of ports and as each one fried we had to use another until the board was useless.  So they had a test matrix on the white board for the programming - choosing how to test with the number of ports we had.  We were running out of time and how many boards were at the company.

And then the kids knew they had to do the terrible option - tear every bit of wires out of the robot and replace and rewire the entire bot.  That was a 8 hour job for two people.  And it was 48 hours before we were to leave for the Super Regional.  While they were doing that the three programmers (including the 7th grader) were all on spring break and they mapped out a complex master program that would test the system as soon as the robot started in the match and decide how healthy it was (i.e. getting the right readings from the sensors) and then send it down an execution path using the set of healthy sensors to do as many of the autonomous tasks it could.  This is called controlled system degradation and it is a very sophisticated concept.  I.e. don't let the spaceship blow up - limp it back to base before the astronauts die.  It forced them to write and test five autonomous concepts (each one would be a good team's entire program) and stuff it into one and allow the system to decide which one to run based on the electrical system health.  They were still writing it in the hotel the night before!

My youngest and Gluten Free after they set the World Record
Now once the wiring was all fixed, my older son sighed relief and went to school while my youngest
was going to run the software test.  And of course - it fried.  I could have cried - they weren't going to make it and they would lose the super regional and likely not make it to worlds.  It was a crushing blow I thought.  They texted him at school to deliver the bad news.  We were leaving at 3pm.  He told his brother to change a set of sensors to a different type and start recalibrating all the programs.  We let the company who made the boards know that they needed to meet us in the booth on the first day with a new board and they promised to go over the system.

In the end - it was their sensor they made.  We all figured it out because my youngest put his iPhone on the ground and filmed the robot as it moved off this structure called a stone in slow-mo.  This new sensor had moved position and was hitting the stone sometimes.  Static was building up on the field and was transferred to the robot by the sensor which didn't have a cover.  When the control electronics received enough shocked, its resistors burnt.  Yes - the company has totally rebuild and released the sensor for this season based on our kids research.
David and Rob.  The last time they
hugged like this, Rob was consoling
David as he wept over the
controversial loss at Worlds.  This was
for joy.  Friendships like this don't come
along often in life.

I was in the booth when the kids explained to the judges the problems they had had and how they had designed this  autonomous program to determine the health of the electrical system and run a different program strategy using different sensors to get points.  They were gobsmacked - just amazed.  As many of them were engineering VPs for major aerospace companies their minds were blown.  At one point the Raytheon guy shook my guys hands and told them they didn't need to go to college.  They were already fully baked and were needed at the job sites.

And the robot worked.  There are two divisions, 72 teams there and we were on the same side as Gluten Free.  This time we were able to become partners in a funny proposal again.  And yes - it was a dream team.  We started setting World Record after World Record.  In a mind-blowing semi-final match, we set the world record and lost in a controversial calling of some 300 points in penalties.  This ticked the kids off and other teams made it an internet meme who were watching world wide.  So they went out on the next match and set another world record.

They won the entire super regional and it felt sooooo good after coming in second several times and those two weeks of nail biting over the electrical system.  On to the Worlds for one more run for the Gold and it was going to be tough.

We won three engineering awards and in a funny twist, this took so many spots for advancement that the next spot for advancement kept going down the list farther... until it got to the local high school team who had been sad in the stands.  Their bad luck had kept following them and while we knew the robot was great, it had a problem that week.  But they were going to Worlds.  And that was prophetic.
We did it.  Those few weeks were so tough for these kids.

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