Concerning Proliferation of COTS Swerve


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My two cents, threads like that is core “what FIRST should be.” Your team decided to do a cool thing that stretched your capabilities, and you did it, and shared it!

The problem you end up with attempting to draw a line around what is a required engineering experience for everyone else, is it ends up being turtles all the way down. Why don’t you have to cast your own lathe to be worthy of turning? Or build your own CNC machine to be worthy of G code?

Personally, I’m a machine everything in your own shop kind of guy, because that is the FRC experience I had as a student. But I’ve seen many students have a great FRC experience doing FRC many other ways. To me, the fact that everyone is under the same tent is part of what makes this program so great.


Penny for the board of directors to, you know, provide some direction.

Seems to me like this “what is FRC” debate is at the core of EVERY major debate on CD and there is only one group of people who can provide an answer with any weight - the rest of us are just pretending to have answers.

Until then, we can all enjoy the madness I guess.


gotta keep our blood pressure numbers up somehow!


I am a member of a team that has utilized COTS swerve since 2018. From my perspective, the availability of COTS swerve has been largely positive to my team, both competitively and in the learning experience.

Putting the competitive bit to the side for now (as it is a more debatable argument, both in accuracy and in the merit of the argument itself), the improved learning experience comes down to one simple fact: we did not, do not, and likely will continue to not have the machining resources required to design and make our own modules. All of the bits we learned about swerve - programming, controlling, maintenance, etc. - are experiences we would be flat out not able to have at all without the advancements of COTS swerve. Our programmers probably took on more than they ever had before that year, both designing swerve code from scratch (public swerve libraries were harder to come by back then, were never plug and play, and we’re a LabVIEW team anyway) and simultaneously doing more with motion profiling than they ever had in the past (this was immediately before WPILib’s path tracking revolution IIRC, which didn’t and still hasn’t carried over to LabVIEW anyway). It was awesome! There’s also a lot of things you can do with swerve software on a COTS solution, both from scratch or just within the paradigms of existing libraries. They don’t do absolutely everything imaginable.

In 2019, we learned a lot about the mechanical deficiencies of the then-current Swerve & Steer design by putting it through some rough defense all season long. Despite the fact that AndyMark addressed all of these issues with a design iteration that fall, and that we switched to the SDS MK2 for 2020 anyway, it was cool to see an actual company implement changes very, very similar to what we surmised would’ve improved the module ourselves by analyzing the failure points we ran into. It was a source of validation that would’ve been very difficult to obtain ourselves, despite having a pretty clear idea of what the revisions should look like, and how they should’ve been accomplished.

Now, to address the elephant in the room: yes, we can afford COTS swerve year in and year out, which is a considerable amount of money. Whether this is because we truly are more fortunate than the majority of teams (it certainly doesn’t feel that way at times), or because we’re putting money that would be far better spent elsewhere into swerve (certainly possible), or both, it’s true that we’re clearing a barrier to entry that many other teams can’t. Given my team’s experience with swerve, I wish this was something everyone could afford if they chose to, not something limited to those with some money. But such is the nature of the program.

I get that working hard on something as advantageous as swerve was extremely rewarding just a few years ago. I understand that it may feel/be less inspiring for your team now, in 2022. But as someone who’s been on the flipside of the coin, let me tell you something: it is very rarely inspiring for our team to see another team pull something like that off and then realize there’s no way we could ever actually fabricate it ourselves, even if it turned out that we did have the chops to design it (though we’re also sorely lacking in mentors with mechanical design/engineering experience, and this translates to the students). Instead, it just gives a sense of futility to competing. For this reason, I believe any reduction of required resources to be a good thing. That can be money. In this case, it’s machining resources.

So, allow me to ask you: do you truly feel that COTS swerve is making the program less inspiring overall, or just for your team (and teams with similar resources)? If it’s the latter, does the proliferation of COTS swerve actually take away from the experience of designing a swerve drive yourself, or does it just take away some of the pride of saying you helped create a legitimate leg-up on the competition? And, finally: are experiences similar to your own truly the only way for the program to be inspiring?

I recognize my language implies which way I lean on the answers to all of these. However, that is simply due to the bias of my own experience; I do not pretend to know the actual answers to any of them, except perhaps the last.


I personally think, paying for pre-built (significant) parts is not great. Teams should strive to bring new ideas to competitions. Otherwise its simply about budget.

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I look forward to seeing your team’s unique drivetrain this year, then!


who, unlike those who went COTS, then have to “throw away” everything they made at the end of the year.


I really prefer that they do away with that with an allowance to reuse parts that have been open sourced. Especially considering for 3d printed parts.

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I think while you can buy some great COTS parts, teams will have to build at least some custom parts, like if you wanted a traversal climber this year.

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That is profitable, is it not? I prefer cheap homegrown solutions no one else uses, seems more real to me.

Thanks for the solid alternative perspective. I do truly believe that being able to purchase a complete, highly functional and competative solution to a universally common game challenge is not inspiring, especially when that solution is above the paygrade of the majority of teams. It is my belief that it is more inspiring to be able to achieve such a goal from effort, clever methods and all the other aspects of well performed team life than having the overseeing body or sponsor fork over funds. It is inspiring to see what others above and below oneself in all facets of resources can achieve, there just isn’t much encouragement when they buy the winning team’s metaphorical car.

I would like to clarify that my percieved impact on the value of our team’s swerve is not where my argument lies. It is the reason for my emotional envolvement, as something we thought was unique and would give us a reasonable advantage for our efforts turned out not to be, but not why I think the commonality of COTS swerve is detrimental and I do try to keep my thoughts as consistent and on point as possible. While perhaps a moderately self-centered emotional hit, it does not detract from how I view my team’s and I’s achievement with sound mind (I added a clarification to the first post as I didn’t think I made that clear enough). I had unrealistic, uneducated expectations in 2020-2021, but again this does not change the core of my argument that a purchased solution is not as inspiring as a developed one and that the commonality of COTS solutions to problems (in this case swerve) reducts the recognition, competatively or otherwise, that a team may get from their efforts. As a result of this, students loose the ever valuable experience and knowledge gained in the process that they would be otherwise encouraged to engage. I can’t say how future experiences as a mentor may change my mind but as a final year student it has a significant impact, non-positive impact on my perspective of FRC.

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FRC is just a game, we all play for different reasons. And if you ask me, Kirby, You Are Winning.

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The major cost driver for swerve drives, I’ve found, is the motors and motor controllers involved. The almot bare minimum it costs to make a WCD is 4 CIMs and 4 Victor SPX, or about 4 * (50 + 35) = $340. The cost of a swerve is minimum 8 motors (assuming you don’t want a cursed 3-module drivebase), 4 controllers, and a set of encoders for rotation and speed, about $800 minimum if you’re good at using Aliexpress. This is not including the high cost of bevel gears and custom machining, unless you start digging into angle grinder gears and 3D printing. For my newer Aliswerve iterations, each module takes about 24 hours to print, eating up valuable days. And as mentioned above, all custom work goes into the bin before the next season. The cost floor on all-metal swerves from SDS and WCP is approaching, and I think we’ll only break through it with a different approach to electronics and machining.

Would that robot have been better with a swerve, or without a turret? I recall that 254 pursued swerve that offseason with limited success. What would have been different if you had approached it at kickoff?

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I think this is a pretty insubstantial argument.

To paraphrase: “Many years ago, someone anticipated that the future would hold COTS major mechanisms/drivetrains, and was worried that it might diminish the design experience. Now, in the present day, you can buy COTS major mechanisms/drivetrains, and people think that it has diminished the design experience.”

I feel like you’re trying to imply a juxtaposition here, but it’s just an example of rather astute prognostication.


I think this is the key insight, and I’d add onto it. A large segment of CD and the wider FRC-engaged community, like many in-groups, has its own received wisdoms and consensus understandings. One of the common "taken-for-granted"s in our community is that a rising tide lifts all boats, that raising the floor beats capping the ceiling, that further proliferations of knowledge and COTS components are to the benefit of all teams on the inherently unequal playing field of FRC.

When someone tries to challenge that understanding, we would do well to remember that this opinion is part of a collective culture that we have chosen to buy into, and which is not necessarily self-evident to a participant in their first year or four in the program. It is good to be cognizant of your intended recipient. We should emphasize in our replies that we have come to believe that FIRST is at its most rewarding—and ultimately its most successful—if we celebrate advances that increase the quality of play on the field and the level of functionality that teams are able to achieve because it we have seen it provide more inspiring outcomes for the students involved, and not because it is part of the gospel of FIRST to say so. We specifically should reemphasize that anyone who has a differing opinion is not wrong, dense, or unwelcome, and that many of us once felt similarly but later changed our minds based on new experiences. It might feel like tone policing, but little things can go a long way in fostering the types of conversations we want to have and inhibiting those we don’t.


So, what is the average budget to compete at now? If we have to buy everything COTS to compete? Maybe we should just make list of buy this? Is that inspiring at all?

I’m usually on the the “COTS parts” side of this argument. However, when the COTS parts are much better than a reasonably resourced team can do (without seasons of iteration), I do think that pushes more of FRC towards the same solutions just because it gets more risky. Examples of COTS solutions that aren’t nearly optimal are the KoP chassis or the GreyT shooter. Many, many teams can make big improvements on those. Not so sure about SDS Swerve or Limelights.

That said, maybe a stronger COTS ecosystem can eventually enable more creativity by having tons of things that can get combined in a combinatorial explosion of ways. But we’re definitely not there right now. For example, most (all?) COTS-heavy traversal climbs have been two pairs of telescoping arms, one on a driven hinge.


Your response encapsulates my thoughts. but please don’t think that I am putting words in your mouth. Those the “hate” COTs are the teams that have the expertise in mentorship, machining, and sponsorship to create an excellent robot from whole cloth or from collective experience. Those that “love” COTs are those teams that have the ability to purchase them to create a robot they can imagine but can not produce on their own. There is a third tier that can’t achieve either level and do the best they can with what they can build or buy. I think FRC should be able to serve all these levels. If FRC can’t do that, it should dissolve and we should all build the 18"cubes of our smaller sister competition.


And that’s fine. Nobody is forcing you to use COTS parts, other than the required motors. However, some teams may not share the same views, and may not have the resources to develop a homegrown solution. (As has been expressed countless times on this forum)