Monday, March 12, 2012

A tale of two robots

It was the best of teams, it was the worst of teams.

One robotics high school team had all the resources it needed, it had an excellent teaching staff, involved parents, a bunch of smart kids, and adequate funding to go to three Regionals. Let's call this school "A.

Another high school robotics team had enough funding for only one tournament, it had a handful of kids, one teacher, and no parents, not a lot of support, not a lot of evident motivation. Just some kids and a volunteer. This team started building their robot only days before the competition (As opposed to weeks before, which is what A did) Let's call this school "B"

Both robotics team were sponsored by my employer. A few of my co-workers and I spent some time helping out these schools.

One school finished last place in the tournament, while the other ranked 14 out of 63 and played in the quarter finals in the Regional competition. Guess which one won and which one didn't?

If you guessed school A. Guess again. School B made it to the second round. While school A, with all the great kids and staff didn't make it.

I've been trying to figure out why for the past couple of days.

Is it talent? School A had a bunch of smart kids, some of which will probably be accepted to Ivy League schools, a big chunk of them will go to the University of Florida's college of Engineering. So what happened. Was it the way the team was managed? Was there some kind of systematic problem with school A? Was it luck? God? The Liberals?

Although winning is not the most important thing in these Robotics competitions, it does raise an important question. How do you put together a winning robot? How do you get these teams to win?

First let me explain what happened.

Rebound Rumble is this years Robotics Game. In order to win,two competing Alliances compete to score as many basketballs into their hoops as they can during a 2 minute and 15 second match. Each alliance consists of three robots. The higher the hoop in which the basketball is scored, the more points the Alliance receives. The match begins with a 15-second Autonomous period where the robots operate independently of driver input. Baskets scored during this period are worth extra points.

The match ends with robots attempting to balance on bridges located at the middle of the field. In Qualification Matches a team scores extra points if they try to balance in the center bridge with a robot from the opposing Alliance.

Robot A was designed and built to do all the tasks in the game, it had a camera that talked to the processor in order to perform computer vision. It would scan the image it was fed for targets, then it would determine the distance to the target and figure out how much current it needs to send to the rollers that will make the basketball shoot.

Robot A also had an arm controlled with pneumatics that was going to bring the bridge down in order be able to get on the ramp.

Robot B could only do two things, it could move, and it could shoot, there was no time spent trying to get a camera vision thing, it spent no time trying to have a ramp mechanism.

Robot B however, had one thing that Robot A didn't have, it had a student that could drive that robot like it was nobody's business. Not to say that the drivers for Robot A sucked or anything, they were adequate, but Robot B's driver was good, it made no mistakes, and it had a sense of where to put the robot. It knew how to use what it had to get the most out of the game. Robot B had strategy, it could do a couple of things well, and it stuck to it. The team knew strategy, the team was able to build a shooting motion that was repeatable enough that it could land a ball in the basket time after time once it found the sweet spot. Robot B also got lucky, but I'd say that it manufactured its luck.

Did Robot A make any mistakes? perhaps it did. A lot of effort was put on making a mechanism to lower the bridge that was never used and was not crucial to winning the game. As a result, no time was spent on perfecting the shooter. The pit for Robot A was full of well -intentioned, talented people, but, nobody brought up this fact until it was too late.

Lack of vision? foresight? perhaps lack of leadership?

Probably a bit of everything. You need both, you need the talent and the leadership to set direction. You can have a bunch of talent but if nobody knows where to go, you will not get anywhere.

Well, that's all I have for now. I got other stuff going on but remember, be good to each other ya'll.


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