Building Robots at School

September 22, 2008

Intro to Ortho: The Three-View Lego Drawing

Filed under: mini sumo,robots,teaching,Tech Ed — dtengineering @ 6:09 pm

For several years now I have taught a course called “Robotics and Flight 10”.  The students in the class are grade nine and grade ten students, and for the majority of them it is their first “real” tech studies class.  The two cornerstone projects of the course are building tethered mini-sumo robots and tethered electric airplanes.

It didn’t take long to realize, however, that the students had great ideas on how to design their robots, but that they had a real problem getting those ideas out of their head in a way that I could understand.  It wasn’t their problem… it was just that they didn’t know how to DRAW!

So I needed something simple, but fun to start the kids learning the basics of orthographic and isometric projections.  I wanted to have something that would challenge the wide variety of skills and abilities that students have, and I wanted to do it with a realatively low investment of time and money.

So what we do is give the kids some Lego blocks.  I show them how to set up their paper on their drafting board, and point out that while the T-square does look like a “T”, the square actually looks like a triangle.  Then I get them to use the drawing tools to draw a border and title block.

Once they can do that they take two pieces of lego (just the bricks… not the fancy stuff) and I show them how to set up an orthographic drawing.  We don’t draw the “bumps” on top or the “holes” on the bottom of the bricks, nor do we draw the “seams” where two pieces come together.  We just assume that the lego has fused together in to one solid piece.  We pay special attention to the difference between construction line weight and object line weight, aligning the views, and the correct way to rotate the lego between top, front, and side projections.  Since all drawings are done at full scale, the students can take measurements directly off the Lego.  I generally refuse to mark a drawing unless it is pretty close to perfect, so most kids get 5/5 on this drawing… although some of them end up going back to fix or re-do it more than once.

Once they get the first drawing done, the next task is to do a slightly more complex drawing, with three pieces of Lego.  I make a point of advising them that just putting three pieces together to form a “bigger box” is not acceptable… they need some corners and variety in there.

Once they have finished the three-piece drawing, I talk to them about hidden lines, because for the third drawing they have to build a five-piece Lego structure and draw it with hidden lines.  By the time they finish this, they are usually getting a pretty good idea of how to draw a simple orthographic projection.  So it is time to give them something more challenging….

  1. This is where they do the “Stump the Teacher” drawing.  The rules are:
  2. You can use as many lego pieces as you want, and make it as challenging as you want.
  3. When you bring it to me for marking, if I can see one error, I send it back… and don’t tell you where the error is (or how many errors there are!).
  4. You can bring it to me three times… if, on the third trip, there are still errors then you have to start over with something simpler.  You have stumped yourself!
  5. When you submit a perfectly drawn piece it will be marked as: 
  • Basic complexity (same as the five piece lego drawing)          2/5
  • Some challenge                                                                3/5
  • Challenging! (the drawing in the photo fits this category)       4/5
  • This is CRAZY… it hurts MY brain!                                      5/5

If, however, I either give up on finding an error, OR I make a mistake in my marking (I have to show them where the errors are on their third and final trip and have been known to very occasionally see an error where there isn’t one) then they get a bonus mark of 6/5 and get to claim the rare and coveted title of having “Stumped the Teacher”.

This is followed up by a few classes doing something similar but with isometric drawings, and then we get in to designing the robots.  Although introducing the drawings this way takes about ten classes, it is perhaps not surprising that the quality of design drawings… and robots… has increased significantly since I started doing this introductory unit with the kids.  If you have an interesting idea for introducing technical drawing to students, perhaps you will leave a comment describing it or linking to a description of it?


Wheel Diameters, Bumps and Traction

Filed under: teaching,Tech Ed,VEX — dtengineering @ 6:04 pm

The students are making good headway on their first class challenge.  All five teams have built something that actually moves and have managed to set up their CPU and controller so that they can actually control it.  But they are noticing that some robots climb the “bump” from the cement to the foam better than others.  They have also noticed that some robots are really good at pushing the other robots around.  So I figured it was time to talk a little bit about the importance of wheel diameter and tire traction when it comes to designing robots.

on the right, a standard two-motor, four wheel drive robot.  In the back, a four-motor, four wheel drive robot.  Since there is nothing linking the front and rear wheels together, when one wheel loses contact with the ground, the motor attached to it is no longer helping to push.  On the left a robot with two different diameter wheels... but with the same gearing leading to each wheel.  This is a common "rookie mistake" as the two wheels will have the same rotational velocities, but different circumferences, meaning each wheel will want to travel at a different speed.  Note the front "omni-wheels", which allow for easier turning... a factor that becomes more important as the robots get bigger and heavier.

Three Robots: on the right, a standard two-motor, four wheel drive robot. In the back, a four-motor, four wheel drive robot. Since there is nothing linking the front and rear wheels together, when one wheel loses contact with the ground, the motor attached to it is no longer helping to push. On the left a robot with two different diameter wheels... but with the same gearing leading to each wheel, a typical "rookie mistake".

The article on torque briefly discusses the importance of wheel diameter in determining the pushing power and speed of the robot.  (Larger wheel = faster, but less pushing power.)  But a larger wheel also makes it easier to climb over obstacles.  This is because as the wheel gets bigger, the angle between level ground and the wheel’s tangent at the contact point gets smaller.  This means that a smaller wheel needs to rapidly accellerate upwards to get over an obstacle, while a larger wheel can “keep on rolling”.  Both axles will move upwards the same amount (since the obstacle is the same size for each wheel), but the smaller wheel will have to do it much more rapidly, “wasting” energy by rapidly converting forward velocity into upward velocity.  At the extreme end, when the wheel radius is equal to or less than the height of the obstacle, the robot must come to a complete halt in the horizontal direction.  This is one reason why “monster trucks” have such big wheels… it allows them to climb over big obstacles.

The second reason that big wheels help is that they raise the axles up off the ground, providing greater ground clearance.  This helps prevent getting “high centred” on an obstacle. This happens when the weight of the robot comes to rest on the chassis (where it touches the obstacle), taking weight off of the drive wheels (typically leaving one set spinning in the air) and thus reducing the amount of traction that can be used to push the robot up and over the obstacle.

A Bored of Notes on the Importance of Wheel Diameter for Clearing Obstacles

A Bored of Notes on the Importance of Wheel Diameter for Clearing Obstacles

So it sounds like big wheels are the best choice, but as with everything, there is a trade-off.  If you have size contraints on your robot, larger wheels mean that the axles, and thus the points where the wheels contact the ground, are also closer together.  This means that the robot is more likely to tip forward or backward under heavy accelleration or braking.  This is often compounded by the fact that the higher ground clearance provided by higher wheels often also results in a higher centre of gravity for the robot, making it more likely to tip in any direction. 

Of course this discussion has been based on four-wheel drive robots.  There are many other solutions to climbing obstacles and maintaining a low centre of gravity.  Six and eight wheel drive systems, using smaller wheels… typically with at least one set of wheels raised up a little higher than the others are quite commonly used for climbing over obstacles.  Tank Treads are also often used.  Other, more exotic drive systems such as snakes, walkers and other creative solutions are used for climbing obstacles as well.

Tips on How to Maximize Pushing Power

Tips on How to Maximize Pushing Power

Other than the importance of going over an obstacle, the other thing that students are discovering is that some robots ‘push’ better than others.  There are a number of factors that can affect this, as shown on the board of notes, to the right.  Maximizing pushing power is a balance between torque and traction.  Torque comes from the motors and gears, and is converted into a pushing force by the interaction of the wheel and the ground.  To maximize pushing power, drive the robot against an immovable barrier.  If the wheels spin, then you have more torque than you do traction.  To make your robot push harder, you need to imcrease the traction, either by increasing the co-efficient of friction between your tire and the ground, or by increasing the amount of force pushing downwards on your tires (ie: make the robot heavier, if you can.)  Alternatively, you may wish to increase your gearing or wheel diameter and trade off some of the excess torque for an increase in speed.  If the motors stall, however, and the wheels stay still, then you have more traction than torque.  You can increase your pushing power by reducing your gearing or wheel diameter (at the cost of reducing your speed)… or by adding more motors to your drivetrain.  A more complex solution, should you need both high torque AND high speed is to build a two-speed gearbox that can “shift on the fly”.

One final note, shown by the left hand robot in the photo at the start of this post, is that if you are going to put different sized wheels on a drive train, then it makes sense to link them with the appropriate gear ratio.  If both wheels spin at the same RPM, and one has a bigger circumference than the other, it is going to want to go faster than the smaller wheel.  The only time these two wheels won’t be “fighting” with each other is when the robot is stopped or the motors are stalled.

September 18, 2008

The VEX Control System

Filed under: teaching,VEX — dtengineering @ 9:16 pm

Now that the students have some robots running about on the floor, they have suddenly become much more interested in the VEX control system.  The default program that comes built-in to the VEX control system is pretty good for getting a basic robot up and running, but you will soon want to start doing a bit more.  To do that, you need to program your robot.

A Bored of Notes

A Bored of Notes

Before talking too much about programming, however, it is important to notice a few things about the VEX transmitter.  The VEX inventors guide (the big white binder that comes with your VEX kit… you have at least looked at it, I hope) has a great section on how to use the transmitter.  Specifically it tells you how to set the “trims”.  It even tells you what a “trim” is, and why you have to set them.  It also tells you how to reverse the direction of one of the joystick axes.  This is a REALLY useful thing to do when you have, after programming your robot, realized that it turns when you try to go straight… or goes forward when you try to go in reverse.  It is definitely worth taking a few minutes to learn how to set up the controller properly.

The Inventors guide also talks about how to set the antenna up properly.  VEX has a good RC (radio control) system, but if you leave your antenna on the transmitter down, and the antenna on your receiver all coiled up in a little roll, you will have probably less than three metres of range.  Note that when you go to a competition that you will be required to remove YOUR crystals from the back of the transmitter and top of the receiver, and replace them with COMPETITION crystals that will be supplied by the event organizers.  This is to prevent teams RC units from interfering with each other.  To practice with your robot at a competition you will need to have a telephone cable to connect your transmitter directly to your CPU.  Take the time to find a good one that works well BEFORE you go to a competition.  You should also note that, should the need arise, you can attach two VEX receivers (operating on different frequencies) to the CPU so that you can use two controllers to run the robot.  You could, for instance, have one person drive the robot base while another controls the arm and end effectors.

Now, back to that programming thing.  As I mentioned, the default program is pretty good and is really well explained in the Inventors Guide (you haven’t read that YET?  Sheesh…) But you will soon want to start doing more, and that means programming.  Forunately for beginners there are three common languages that can be used to program a VEX CPU, and at least one of them is really about as easy as programming is ever going to get.  I guess that is why they call it EasyC.

The programming kit includes EasyC and a programming cable that will allow you to hook the VEX CPU up to your (preferably laptop so you can take it to tournaments) computer, as well as one seat of the EasyC software.  Both the cable and software can be purchased seperately (or you can buy a lab pack of EasyC) but typically a ratio of one seat of EasyC to one programming cable to one robot seems to work okay.  If you are running many teams, you could probably share a programming cable between two robots, however.

Rather than go into detail on how EasyC works, I will refer you… once again… to the manual.  I will note that on page 16, when it discusses identifying the correct COM port to talk to your robot with that you can usually save yourself the hassle of going through the whole list by looking under “Control Panel->System->Device Manager->Ports (COM and LPT)”.  Aside from that the manual is pretty comprehensive, and written far more clearly than anything I’m likely to write here.  EasyC is what I use with my students as well as with my own VEX kit at home.

If I need more flexibility, however, or am just feeling sufficiently masochistic to delve into the world of hand coding C, the VEX CPU can be programmed with the Microchip C compiler.  I am not going to offer any suggestions on that topic here, however, because if you are considering that option you are either sufficiently skilled to figure it out on your own, or just blissfully unaware of how much happier you will be with EasyC.  It isn’t like Microchip C is hard, per se… we use it with our FRC robots and it works great.  Our lead programmer for the “BIG” robot was in grade 10 last year and did a fine job with Microchip C… it is just that EasyC is so… well…. easy.

The third, “intermediate” option is RobotC, however I haven’t used it and can’t comment on what it can do.

So good luck, have fun, and try to get some kind of autonomous code (when the robot runs all by itself without any help from you) figured out before your first competition.  If you don’t have it figured out by then, then make sure when you get there that you ask around until you find someone who can help you.

September 16, 2008

Building a moving machine: My students’ first VEX challenge.

Filed under: robots,teaching,Tech Ed,VEX — dtengineering @ 4:04 pm

This year I am running five VEX teams as part of my Engineering 11 class here at David Thompson.  There are 20 students in the class, which works out nicely to be four students per team.  Eventually we will be playing this year’s VEX challenge game, but since very few of the students have any experience with robotics (or building stuff, for that matter), I wanted to ease them in to it.  In the past I have just given teams the official challenge and said “go”… but I really do think it is better to lead them through the process one step at a time, and the best place to start is with the drive train… the most important part of any competition robot.

I had all the students put their names in a hat, and we drew names at random to see who would be on which team.  These teams will only be together for a couple of weeks… once we have completed this challenge I will reassign them to new teams with completely different partners for a slightly more complex challenge.  Then they will be able to form their own teams for the “real” game.

The Playing Field

The Playing Field

The first challenge I have given them is fairly simple.  They have five classes to build a robot that can drive the course shown in the photo.  It is a race.  One robot starts, on the cement, at each end of the playing field.  The robots have to navigate between two “slalom” gates marked by bolts.  It doesn’t matter which direction they go through, so long as they go through both gates.  If a robot knocks a bolt over, the driver has to put down their controller and do five pushups.  After the pushups are done then someone else on the driver’s team can take over control, but that driver is “out” for that race.  Contact is allowed… but just pushing and shoving, no flipping or damaging the other team’s machine.  Finally, if a part… any part… should fall off a team’s robot, then EVERYONE on the team has to do five pushups before they can carry on driving.

The course is set up to cover a few basics in VEX design… how to hook up motors, how to set up the transmitter, how to create a simple EasyC program for the robot, how to steer, how to climb over an obstacle, and how to push another robot around.  These are all fundamental skills that will be important in designing a competitive VEX robot.

Rather than provide lecture content and class demonstrations while the teams build (they would really rather be building than listening to me) I ask one person from each team to come to a table at the back of the shop where I demonstrate a topic (today it was battery charging and hooking up the receiver and CPU) to just those five students.  It is then their job to be the group “expert” on that topic and share the information with the rest of their group.  As different students become experts on different topics and move from group to group, hopefully the knowledge will diffuse throughout the class.  And, no, I haven’t quite finalized exactly how I’m going to assess them individually at the end of all this.  Probably some combination of self-assessment, peer assessment, and a quiz or two combined with a liberal helping of marks based on their robot’s performance on the playing field.

It has been interesting to watch the different design paths chosen by the teams.  Some are creating their own design, while others are using the “squarebot” design in the VEX manual.  The teams working on the squarebot design seem to have the easier task, but the squarebot uses just two motors… teams with custom designs are using four motors and jacking up the gear ratio a bit.  Interestingly, so far all of the teams are using the small “roller blade” wheels… but we are only a couple classes in to the building.  It will be interesting to see what comes from a couple days of practice… the first robot made it across the field today after school.

FIRST Lego League: Where to pay? Where to Play?

Filed under: FLL,Robotics Competitions — dtengineering @ 1:48 pm

FIRST Lego League is probably THE largest robotics competition in the world.  Although it is limited to students in the 9-14 age range, it is certainly the largest robotics competition here in BC, both in terms of the numbers of teams and the number of people involved.  A large part of this success is due to the hard work of the BC Original Minds Association which organizes the FLL program in BC.  Their FLL web site has the most up to date information on what is going on in BC with regards to FLL.  The “Resources” page is particularly useful.  Although I didn’t see information on the whens and wheres of this year’s tournaments, there are typically three qualifying tournaments in BC, including one on Vancouver Island, as well as a provincial championship held in January in the lower mainland.

Each year FLL introduces a new challenge, based around a positive, scientific, theme.  This year’s theme is “Climate Connections”.  More information on the challenge is available from the FIRST website.

Details on costs are listed here, and the registration page is here.  Typically a team will pay a $200USD registration fee, and buy the “field set-up kit” of lego parts and a 4’x8′ game mat for $65 USD (you get at least $65 worth of Lego in this kit, which you are free to use however you want in future years).  This way all teams will be able to replicate the official playing surface in their own lab, shop, or living room.  It takes quite a while to build all the various field elements and set up the playing field, however this is essential for practicing and refining the robot’s autonomous routines.  To see the “missions” and game mat, look here.  If two or more teams are sharing a space, for instance when we ran two teams out of my animation lab here at school, it is possible to only order one field set-up kit and for the teams to share it.  Finally teams will need access to either the Lego Mindstorms NXT, or the older RCX, robotics kit, including CPU, motors and sensors.  While it is often possible to find the old RCX bricks sitting around unused in the educational system, there is a nicely subsidized kit including the NXT system with essentially all the parts required to build a basic FLL robot available for $365 USD when you register a team.  This kit can be re-used from year to year.  For more sophisticated robots, additional Lego parts can be added, as specified in the rules.  Canadian teams will find their parts supplied through Spectrum Scientific.  This avoids some of the brokerage charges that come when ordering direct from the USA, but can result in orders taking a little longer to arrive.

It is important to understand that the robots are only part of the overall competition.  Preparing reports related to the theme, developing pit area displays, and demonstrating teamwork and enthusiasm are all important parts of the competition. This why it is possible to have up to ten students on one FLL team.  Personally, I think four kids per team is about right, and probably wouldn’t recommend going above six at the most.  The FLL Coach’s Handbook has good information on all aspects of building an FLL team. (For some reason that link wasn’t working when Ic checked, but it might just be our balky school connection.)  Once you get looking around you will find that there are many, many resources available from programming to mentoring to just building good Lego structures.  Maybe you will post some of the ones you find most useful here as a comment?

September 15, 2008

Torque… it all comes down to Torque.

Filed under: robots,teaching,Tech Ed — dtengineering @ 10:07 pm

One of the most useful concepts in building competitive robots is the concept of torque.  Oddly, for a concept this simple but powerful, it isn’t officially covered in the BC curriculum until Physics 12… and then often towards the end of the year.  That is why I always talk about torque near the beginning of any robotics project, even with my grade 9’s.

Torque is the amount of “twist” about a pivot point, and is determined by two factors:  the amount of force being exerted and the distance that force is away from the pivot point.  Consider example “A”, a “teeter-totter”.  These things used to exist in all sorts of kid’s playgrounds, and were always a great opportunity to see if you could actually launch your little brother into the air.  Playgrounds might be safer now that they are gone, but a whole generation is deprived of the deep understanding of physics that comes from having the person on the other end jump off while you are six feet in the air.  There is nothing like landing flat on your butt on packed dirt to leave a lasting impression of the importance of torque in your brain.

But I digress.  The formula for torque is simply “Force x Distance”, or, in physics symbology, “τ=F*D”.  Thus in example “A”, the teeter totter is balanced… the torque on one side 20Nm clockwise about the pivot point, is countered by the 20Nm torque in the other direction.  This should be pretty obvious, but what isn’t always obvious is that you could replace the force and distance on one side with the driveshaft of a motor.  So long as the motor could produce 20Nm of torque, the system would be balanced.

Torque also describes the amount of “pushing force” you can get from your robot wheels.  In example “B”, a wheel is driven by a 20Nm motor.  Since the wheel has a radius of 2m, you will get a pushing force of 10N.  That’s not bad… the Newton is the metric unit of force, and… roughly translated, one Newton is roughly equivalent to the gravitational force exerted by a 100g weight near the surface of the Earth.  So this robot would push with a force equivalent to “one kg” (10N≈1kg).  If you don’t quite comprehend the difference between a Newton and a kg, go bug a science teacher until they explain it to you.  They will be delighted that you asked.  Anyways, back to that wheel… what would happen to the amount of pushing force if you used a 1m diameter wheel?  What would be the “trade off” for the extra pushing force?  And what idiot came up with an example using a 2m radius wheel?  How big would that robot have to be?

Finally, torque also describes the situation where you are attempting to use a robot arm to lift an object, as shown in example “C”.  By understanding torque it is easier to understand how a counterbalance (an opposing force on the end opposite the load) can make it easier for your robot to lift heavy loads.  Note that the counterbalance doesn’t have to be a weight… you could attach elastic bands between the tower and the “short” end of the robot arm.  What isn’t immediately apparent, however, is that torque will also determine whether or not this robot will flip forward as the arm lifts the load (you don’t have enough information to calculate that here, but it fairly easy to do… just consider the front wheel of the robot to be the pivot point.)

One thing to keep in mind is that our good friends south of the border, who long ago fought a bitter war to gain independence from the British Empire, are ironically about the only nation left on the planet still using the old British “Imperial” system of measurement.  So if you happen to be talking to Americans, you’ll find that they use terms such as “foot-pounds” and “ounce-inches” to describe torque.  It’s the same concept, of course, but in different units.

These are all simple torque calculations (we haven’t discussed the weight of the arm, for instance, or how to deal with loads that are at an angle other than 90° to the level arm), but as students develop a better understanding of torque they can apply it to almost every aspect of robot design…. but without at least a basic understanding of torque, it is almost impossible to design a robot.

P.S.  A great question was asked at the end of my torque lesson the other class, “But Mr. Brett, isn’t the formula for work (F*d) the same as the formula for torque (F*d)?”  The answer is both yes, and no… the formulas are the same, but in work, the “d” refers to the distance an object moves, which is more correctly referred to as Δd, “the change in distance”.  (Alternatively one may refer to it as Force*Displacement, if one simply insists on using F*d).

VEX Schedules for BC

Filed under: Robotics Competitions,VEX — dtengineering @ 9:06 pm

I had a phone call tonight from Lance.  Lance is a real, genuine engineer (as opposed to us “teachers with engineering backgrounds”) who plays a big leadership role in organizing robotics events here in BC and supporting teachers and teams in whatever way he can.  Lance was working with Randy (on Vancouver Island) to sort out the timing of the VEX tournaments in Vancouver, and on Vancouver Island.  They had been tentatively scheduled to be just one week apart.

It looks like now we will stay with the December 6th date for the Vancouver VEX tournament.  The location is to be determined, but we have a few places in mind that we should be able to get for free that have worked well in the past.  Randy will move the Vancouver Island tournament back to later in January so that teams will have a chance to re-design and re-build their machines.  That should make for a very spectacular event in the Courtenay/Comox area of Vancouver Island, as the robots always make huge strides in performance between events.  It will be fantastic to see robots at their peak performance on Vancouver Island, as Randy — working with MISTIC — has accomplished a real feat in bringing VEX to Vancouver Island.

Fundraising and Sponsorships

Filed under: fundraising,Robotics Competitions,teaching — dtengineering @ 6:18 am

This summer our team ran a car wash at a gas station near the school.  Over the course of a weekend they raised over $800.  Afterwards one student observed, “If we do this 27 more times we can afford to go to the Hawaii Regional!”

Trobotics ran a car wash fundraiser one weekend in July.

Trobotics ran a car wash fundraiser one weekend in July.

While I wouldn’t put it past some FRC teams to do 27 weekends of car washes to meet a fundraising goal, it quickly becomes evident that fundraising is only part of solution to funding a robotics team.  Developing relationships with the local community: businesses, governments, professionals, tradespeople, community service organizations… everyone, is part of the challenge.  While our FRC team has been fortunate to have the support of one of the most generous sponsors in all of student robotics (yes, General Motors, we mean you!) for the past four years… we didn’t start out that way.

We had to hit up our school’s Parent’s Advisory Council, and went on a campaign of cold calling local businesses and anyone we could think of to try and get their support.  We did okay, thanks to some help from the folks at FIRST Robotics Canada opening some doors for us once they could see we were serious, but we could have done better if we’d known about some of these resources:

FIRST NEMO (Non-Engineering Mentor Organization) has some good tips about all sorts of non-technical things, including fundraising.

Chief Delphi, the unofficial discussion board for all things FIRST has some great tips.  You can search for yourself (sign up as a member and you don’t have to type in all those goofy codes) or start here and here.  Or even better, go to the white papers and search for sponsorship or fundraising.  Oh, and sign up as a member.  It is a really great, supportive, on-line community.

FIRST provides some supporting materials for FRC teams, FTC teams and FLL teams, (if those links don’t work, just go to the FIRST website and look up “Communications Resource Center” under the “quick links” heading) and I will always direct people to the archives of FIRST workshops and conferences, although this time I’m not linking to anything specific as I haven’t really gone through a lot of the “non technical” stuff.

Finally, my tips… set up different sponsorship levels, “Gold, Silver, Bronze” and be prepared to offer up naming rights to your top sponsors.  In fact, it is pretty much required for FRC teams to have their sponsors’ name as part of their official team name.  We’re pretty darn proud to be “General Motors Canada and David Thompson Secondary School” on the official lists.  Realize that sponsors take you more seriously when they see you doing a lot of the hard work yourselves.

Presenting a "thank you" photo to Maryann Combs, of General Motors

When you DO land a sponsor, make sure you take VERY good care of them.  Keep them posted with news about what your team is doing, how your design is coming along and what you are learning because of their support.  They want to know that their support is having an impact.  At the end of each season we like to take a team photo, frame it with a nice border, have the students write “thank yous” on and sign the border and present it to one of our “champions” at General Motors.

Remember that it IS possible to do this.  There are 1300 FRC teams around the world, and each of them has figured out a way to come up with thousands and thousands of dollars to play the game.  We didn’t really expect to make it our first year… and yet here we are looking at a sixth season coming up!  Last year, when two FTC teams from our neighbouring school, Gladstone Secondary, qualified for the FTC Championships in Atlanta, it was a complete pipe dream for them to ever make it there.  Yet their community came together in just a few short weeks and both teams made it to the quarter finals of the world championships!  It wasn’t easy… it won’t be easy… but it can be done.

My final word of advice though, is to find someone who can do for your team what Pat does for ours.  Pat teaches business education at our school and runs the communications/business/marketing side of our team.  She is the team’s real expert where money and corporate relations are involved.  A robotics team, just like a technology business, needs a wide variety of expertise in order to thrive.  Maybe for your team it will be a parent, or someone in the community, but we’d be lost without Pat.

Finding VEX — Where to Pay? Where to Play?

Filed under: Robotics Competitions,VEX — dtengineering @ 3:03 am

Well, I don’t have to write a lot about getting registered.  The good people at IFI robotics, organizers of the VEX Robotics Competition (VRC, of course, as we need to keep our TLA’s up) have written a good guide to registering for VRC.  The short answer is that registration is $75 for the first team from a school and $25 for each team after that.  The five teams at DT, for instance, cost just $175.  The real cost comes in the equipment.  You can count on spending close to $1000 per team to build a competitive robot, but that equipment should be reusable from year to year.  That is why we can afford to have five teams… we already have five sets of equipment.  (I’ll write more later on what I would recommend to buy, and where to get it.)

Their guide should tell you where to PAY, and if you look here, you should find a long list of places to PLAY.  You will find the list towards the bottom of the page, and it goes on for several pages.  The list is (as I write this) incomplete as there will be more events added.  Today, for instance, I signed up three teams from our school for the Vancouver Island tournament and all five up for the Vancouver tournament, but those of us organizing the Vancouver tournament have yet to finalize dates and locations (I know it says Dec. 6, but with Vancouver Island running the following weekend, it would make sense for one of us to change).  Keep an eye on, and be sure I’ll post more here about the scheduling issues as they are resolved.

As far as other Canadian events go, I see several tournaments listed in Ontario, as well as Nova Scotia and Alberta.  Hopefully there will be at least one in Washington State, but we’ll be happy to host the American teams up here if there isn’t.

UPDATE:  Sept. 24/08

BC VEX Tournament Schedule (less tentative than before):

December 6, West Vancouver Secondary School

January 20, Courtenay/Comox area, Vancouver Island

Febrary 20, Gladstone Secondary School, Vancouver

Finding FTC — Where to pay? Where to play?

Filed under: FTC,Robotics Competitions — dtengineering @ 2:32 am

I’ve been asked a few times now about the costs of the FIRST Tech Challenge program, and when and where the tournaments will be held.  I can understand that there is a bit of confusion to someone new to robotics competitions, so here are some places to look:

What does it cost to play FTC for 2008?  Look here.  In short the answer is $275 USD for registration and $900 USD for the new kit of parts.  This kit of parts (KOP in acronym land) should be reusable from year-to-year.  There are also grants available to teams returning from last year, and a limited number of rookie team grants to help cover the cost of purchasing the KOP.  At $450 each, the grants are substantial, and definitely worth looking in to.  (Hint… read that link, above.)

FIRST works on a program of regional affiliates… you can kind of think of these as “non-profit franchises”.  Just like McDonalds restaurants are often locally-owned and operated franchises, but with central control of product and quality, this ensures that FIRST offers local support, but a uniformly high quality of competition around the world.  For teams in BC, the regional affiliate partner is the BC Original Minds Association (BCOMA).  Their web site is  Look under “registration” for how to get signed up for their FIRST Tech Challenge Event, scheduled for January 10 at BCIT in Burnaby.

Other FTC events can be found in Seattle (they have a great write up on getting involved in FTC) and through the FIRST web site.  This list will be updated throughout the fall, but at present the only Canadian competitions I am aware of outside of BC are in Ontario.  Check out FIRST Robotics Canada’s website for more information on what is happening “back east”.

FTC is a great program, backed by some great people.  It can sometimes seem a little intimidating to get signed up and registerested, and sometimes at first glance the fees can seem a bit high.  I can assure you that using TIMS (the “Team Information Management System”) gets easier, and that FIRST works hard… and succeeds… at delivering good value for your money.

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