An Open Letter Regarding FRC Field Wear and Condition

Chief Delphi,

My name is Jonathan Fletcher, Head 1 of the 3171 HURRICANES. If you’re being following some of the threads that keep popping up, you may have seen that we lost Match 13 in the Greater Pittsburgh Regional finals due to (what I and many believe) was an arena fault, often called a field fault.
I do not wish to litigate this situation anymore in this thread, rather I want to move forward with a request for a potential solution in the form of an open letter to Co-Chief FTA Mark McLeod. Mark is a friend, mentor, confidante, of myself and many, many, many more teams and students over the last 20+ years. This was recognized by FIRST last year in promoting him to one of two Co-Chief FTAs that oversee every field distributed by FIRST, a position I know personally no one else more qualified for. Even if you don’t have an opinion about this topic, feel free to post how he’s saved your team’s bacon in the past.

Dear Mark McLeod,

My name is Jonathan Fletcher, Head Coach 1 of the 3171 Hurricanes. Recently, our team (and every other team there) had the unfortunate experience of playing on a very worn field at the Greater Pittsburgh Regional 2023. The major gameplay elements in question were the Charging Stations, consisting of many pivoting, hinging, and sliding assemblies that were each damaged by normal gameplay beyond their original specifications. The result of this damage was many “jammed” charging stations, inconsistent autonomous behavior between the red and blue stations, and inconsistent behavior from one side of a station to another. The flap panels required repair by my observation every 2 matches or so, and we personally had to replay a match where a panel was lost altogether.

I realize that field damage is a normal part of FRC throughout the years, and my hat is off to the FTAs who did their very best to keep this equipment in a semblance of good order. However, due to these components reaching the end of their useful life, this job was basically impossible. This led to an unusual amount of replays, general stress among teams who did not know what to expect from the field from match to match, and pressure on the event officials, including the referees trying to compensate for this field condition with even and fair calls while still proceeding with the regional.

The sum total of this irreparable damage, in human terms, was a drastic increase in the animosity between teams, and teams and officials. Gracious Professionalism is difficult to maintain in ideal competition conditions, and is something we all have to work towards win or lose. However, playing an extremely close competitive game in week 6 of FRC on a completely out of spec damaged field is unacceptable from any perspective, especially in FRC where robust engineering is a core value. Robots have to pass stringent inspection for safe operation, why isn’t the field on which they play held to similar standards?

To this end, I propose a solution. Mark, as Co-Chief FTA you have the ability to review the upcoming game before it is released. Gameplay elements that are not monolithic, and have components that move, slide, pivot, hinge, turn, or otherwise have the potential for mechanical wear should be designed with replaceable wear surfaces. These wear parts should be quickly replaceable at the beginning of regionals, and as necessary if they become worn out of specification. Each field should be provided with multiple replacements for each of these parts, available at any time to FTA staff.

The engineers and gameplay designers at FRC work with some of the most brilliant students, mentors, sponsors and companies in the world. A simple change in design philosophy such as this, which is standard to industrial machines and equipment the world over, would rectify this issue at its source. FRC should be as meticulous with the engineering needs of maintaining a heavily used field as each team is with our 'bots. Spares for each component and built assembly on a given robot are a must have in every prepared pit. FRC owes itself and everyone involved in this fantastic organization the same.

Best Regards,

Jonathan

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We noticed inconsistencies in the charging station at NEDCMP as well. Had a consistent charge station auto for our first two district events, but kept on pushing the charge station the wrong way when it came to District Champs. Not sure if it was due to wear on the charging stations over time or due to the unique field surface at that venue, although we did note that we had more trouble with the blue side than red.

Always in favor of field elements that can be easily repaired when such inconsistencies arise.

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I’d go as far as to say also - stop with these field elements that require a team to spend money to get one that will interact properly - the team versions of the upper hub in 2022 and the charge station in 2023 worked dimensionally but many times teams would perfect their robots on the team version elements only to find out the actual version doesn’t work with their design (bounce outs in 2022). FRC is already prohibitively expensive, please stop making it even more expensive to have a robot that doesn’t need to be tuned while at competition

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I don’t know what the FMA field crew at DCMP was specifically doing, but they were regularly fixing the charge station and I don’t think there was any jamming issues during the event. Hopefully what they were doing will be reflected across the champs divisions.

edit: i was wrong

At least in the matches I played, there was one panel detached and the station was jammed once (although we triple docked so the match was not replayed and we collected 4 rp) It seems like charge stations in general are very easily jammed when one robot tries to cross over and tilts it up just for another to drive into it - This was what happened in our match

FWIW PNW DCMP had a side that autos worked less reliably on as well for charge station and there were times when less heavy bots got more than inconsequential air time off of them. I don’t think its a stretch to call this game-changing, bracket-changing, or even event-changing for some teams. While I recognize that the field crew did everything in their power to rectify the situation, in my opinion HQ definitely needs to reconsider this complex field element design thing. I find them cool but impractical, especially for lower resource teams who already struggle with building a bot, much less a funnel with a motor in the middle that runs at a specific speed with a specific tire on it or a teeter-totter that has a specific amount of traction with a specific angle deadband with a specific force requirement.

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Usually, any fixes seemed to be immediately after the CS looked a bit sticky, or when something was visibly about to break or broken. I want to say that the Charge Stations used on the “Real Field” at DCMP were actually the (2) Practice Charge Stations that floated around all season, so in theory, they were probably in the best condition of any of the (6) that FMA has. (I think it’s 6, 2 for each field + each P-Field Setup)

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At CHS DCMP, an entire charge station (blue) needed to be replaced in the middle of the competition. While doing what appeared to be a routine check, a couple volunteers noticed a break in the charge station. Immediately, volunteers and FTAs rushed to replace the charge station with the one from the practice field. They did this quite quickly and successfully. However, had this gone unnoticed it could’ve affected teams during the rest of the competition. Prior to this, there was already a match that had to be replayed because the other charge station (red) had malfunctioned mechanically. It was so bad, in fact, that teams were worried about running their autonomous balances when playing as red because it was having small, but very frequent, issues throughout the entire competition. Fortunately, my team’s auto balance did not seem to be affected, but there were other teams who had no issue balancing on the blue charge station or the practice field one (which later became the replacement blue station), but they couldn’t seem to balance on the red one autonomously despite no code or functions on their robot changing.
The volunteers and FTAs did an amazing job ensuring play was fair, fun, and successful for all the teams. DCMP was a wonderful event and everyone there was a blast, and it was nobody’s fault in particular that these issues arised, however, I agree with the above post that something has to be done for future games in order to ensure this sort of game field fault is not something teams are worried about/compensating for during a competition. And furthermore, having to come up with emergency solutions to these issues is a huge burden to put onto volunteers who can only do so much to ensure a fair feild.

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I will provide my own testimony here: at both OHMV and OHCL, we had issues getting across the charge station consistently. Blue seemed to be worse, especially when coming into the community. Furthermore, a routine hit while trying to go across the charging station caused it to get jammed at MVR, though luckily we were able to save it by putting 2 bots on the jammed side. All in all, the charging station issues, inconsistencies, and different conditions on each side resulted in us losing many potential cycles, rank points, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it cost us a match. My heart goes out to all the teams negatively affected by this, including 3171 and our Ohio friends 48. Thank you for this open letter, I hope that this can manage to spark some change.

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Agreed on the NEDCMP field, as some may people know, they had a click-together floor system sitting on top of a dirt floor (horse arena) and there were inconsistencies in the fields. We found the Wilson field was worse than the Meir field, and our auto was effected. We spit out a 3rd piece on our way back aiming at the bottom node and we ended up turning/twisting on the field each time, like there was a divot on carpet. Although it was better than last year.

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100% this. We allocated a significant amount of our team’s resources for a few days to build a charging station only to immediately realize that what we built would in no way simulate the behavior of the actual field elements. Luckily we had ample time on the practice field at our first event to test and tune our autonomous mode, but a lot of teams won’t have this luxury.

And as you stated, this happens every year. I recall the gear feeder stations in 2017 that exhibited major differences in behavior between the team versions and the actual field version, differences that straight up kneecapped that entire season for us. Yes, this is all part of the challenge, but for teams who find out these differences at an event, it tends to be quite difficult to recover.

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In a perfect world, I would love this. It was so frustrating from the beginning of this season to realize that the only time we could truly test out auto-balance was in a match. We got lucky, it worked amazingly. But it would be best if wooden field elements could match the real elements as closely as possible.

However, I do feel like that is a really big engineering challenge that the GDC is trying to solve. The buyable field elements are a good step forward, but as you mentioned, it is a money/storage problem at that point. I also feel like the bounce-outs of 2022 may not have been predictable. As in the GDC may not have discovered that it could be an issue.

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I suspect the opposite, to be honest; I think that goal geometry was intentionally tuned to be “sneakily difficult.”

In principle I’m not averse to these things, but we absolutely need acceptable mock-ups that teams can afford if subtleties like this are going to be part of the challenge.

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I thin this splits into two issues:

  1. Team-version field elements behaving differently than the real thing. This is a factor of competing requirements. The real field elements need to survive a full season of setup and tear down and abuse, all while fitting inside the truck for transportation. The team versions need to be affordable for teams. That basically leads to different materials being used, which in turn means different behavior (different weight, different friction, etc).
  2. A lack of clear performance requirements for field elements. For the charging stations, there are very few posted performance requirements. The manual lists angles encountered, but that’s about it. There’s no performance listing for coefficient of friction (which changes during play, as rubber from tread rubs off onto the polycarb), for force required to tip (both vertical and horizontal force), or upper limits indicated for robot interaction. These lack of performance requirements lead to disappointments from teams when stations don’t perform identically. The fact is, we know they aren’t performing the same, but we don’t have any way to know if they are considered “in spec”, as we don’t have clear testable requirements to tell us what that spec is.
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If you are right, then yes, we absolutely need mock-ups that teams can afford.

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The fact is, we know they aren’t performing the same, but we don’t have any way to know if they are considered “in spec”, as we don’t have clear testable requirements to tell us what that spec is.

I wonder if Ri3D can help out with this. Perhaps established Ri3D teams can get their hands on real field elements to do this kind of informative testing. This was one of my goals when MSOE tried to do Ri3D.

It would obviously be preferable if FIRST did this themselves but Ri3D teams are very connected to the modern FRC community and may know what data they would need.

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I noticed this watching you guys in many MV matches. I knew it had to be frustrating.

And oh by the way - guess where the Buckeye field moved on to?

FIRST HQ just let these charge station duds adversely affect all three WOW (shhhhh HQ says you’re not allowed to use that term any more…true story, bro) regionals and their field crews.

#notaconspiracyjuststatingafact

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I am not convinced that this is 100% a wear and tear issue. There were a number of faults in the charge station at our week 1 event. If I recall correctly, 3 of which resulted in match replays.

It is my opinion that the design simply failed to consider (the effect of) the forces when one or more (~150lb) robots contact the ramps (at ~15ft/sec) in such a way that the ramps become more vertical (rather than more horizontal).

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Sooooooooo presuming the championship charge stations are the same design with the flipped hinge dealie, even if they are brand spanking new…

…how much room is there in the schedule for field fault replays in 75-team divisions? Asking for a few friends… :money_mouth_face:

As Samuel L. Jackson said in Jurassic Park…Hold on to your butts! And drive daintily!

So it’s on RPCs and not HQ to make the decision to go to Districts… but HQ gets to step in and stop it if they don’t want it to happen?

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