We’ve been asked in the past to put together tips for how to work on optimizing your robot for fast cycle times. Over the years 610 has built many robots that have been designed and almost solely focused on fast cycle times, our robots in 2013, 2016, 2017, 2018 are good examples of this. Most years it was a major advantage for us to design our robots around cycle times (‘13, ‘16, ‘17), but last year eventually it reduced our effectiveness as the game evolved away from us (‘18). As most teams probably realize this years game is going to be the fastest cycling game FIRST has ever seen, human loading and scoring on your side of the field should cut down cycles by a couple seconds and make this the fastest scoring game we’ve seen.
Throughout the years 610 as a team has developed a couple tips and tricks that we use to design our robot around and train our drive team to optimize cycle times:
Build your drive train for Acceleration not Top Speed
Most years we’ve made the decision to gear for a slower top speed and focus more on acceleration. We will plan out what our primary drive path will be (loading station to Pyramid in ‘13, low bar to tower ‘14), and optimize our gear ratios for that path. It usually ends up being a something in the 9-11 ft/s range. In ‘17 we built a 2 speed drive and it was helpful in an open field, but it felt like we had less agility around D than in previous years.
Simplify scoring alignment
We think a lot about how to make the scoring actions as fast as possible, this usually involved reducing the amount of time drivers take to line up the pickup and scoring of game pieces, and optimizing the mechanisms to score as fast as possible. Two of the best example of this are ‘13 and ‘17, in ‘17 in or quest to make the fastest gear bot we put a lot of our design effort towards placing gears as fast as possible. We included an active gear release mechanism, flexibility to slide horizontally, and eventually automated sensors to release the gear once the peg was through the gear and inside our robot. In ‘13 we simplified lining up to the goal with our pneumatic “bunny ears” to square ourselves using the first level of the pyramid. And throughout the season we iterated on the shooter to dramatically improve the speed we could shoot the batch of 4 frisbees.
Many teams use a driver and an operator. A key factor in simplifying scoring is to reduce the amount of synchronisation required by the drive team. In ‘17 for example, our operator only had control of the climbing mechanism and fuel mechanism. The driver had control of the gear mech, before it was automated. If you can’t automate scoring or pickup, often the driver having control can be faster than the driver having to sync with the operator.
Practice, you talking about Practice?
Probably the most important part of getting really fast cycle times is getting your drive team lots of practice behind the controls. But the most important thing we’ve learned is how to run driver practice. Usually the first couple days of driver practice are more about working out the issues with the robot, figuring out the optimal controls, breaking the robot and fixing it.
After most of the major issues are worked out with the robot we then start focusing on drills. We try and design drills that will represent the major functions of the game, in 2017 cycling to different parts of the airship, taking different paths to different pegs on the airship. Once the drivers get comfortable with those paths and cycles, we will start challenging with various tasks, like not dropping gears, to take perfect paths into the loading station so that they don’t have to re-align the robot, to not drive too far while decelerating into the airship. An example of how we would enforce this is putting pylons around the area around the airship to limit the space to decelerate and score the gear. The penalty of touching the cones, was a reset of the count and time, essentially to force to drivers into thinking about all the finesse needed to play a full 2 minute match.
Finally once your drive team has started to master the main actions of the game, this is where maybe the most important part of driver practice that most teams miss, Defence. We will usually have at least one of our old robots setup as a defence robot, and start challenging our drive team to drive through D. This is where they will start developing counter moves and learn the best ways to get around defence. The best way of dealing with defence is to never try and drive through it, but drive around it, and avoid T-bones. Our drivers will learn counter moves and fakes to get around D, once they start making the D look foolish you know you have a good drive team.
During competition our best tool for improving robot performance is reviewing match footage. We have team members who will record a full-field view of every match, then as quickly as possible download the footage and review it with the drive team. After every match our drive team and strategy team will review the match footage and have an open conversation about what worked and didn’t work in each match, focusing on what we can do to improve.
610 doesn’t build a practice robot, so we just finish our 1 robot as early as possible. We aim to spend weeks 5 and 6 of build, practicing then breaking the robot. Only to fix it and then continue to practice.
One of the biggest issues I see a lot of teams make is being distracted by other robots on the field and not knowing what to do next. A lot of time you will see robots get distracted and waste time struggling to decide what to do on the field and ending up doing being so unfocused during the match it hurts the alliance. Ensuring that every team on your alliance knows the game plan and sticks to it is very important. Our strategy and scouting teams work very hard before each and every match planning with our alliance partners the match strategy. The goal is so that every drive team knows where they are getting game pieces from, where they are going to score them, and how they are going to play D.
In most games where the actions of the other alliances doesn’t fundamentally change how you can score makes this easier to plan for, last year’s game ‘18 was really interesting strategically but also put a lot more pressure on drive coaches to react to the game and make decisions on the fly. This is where drive practice really pays off, if you pick the right drive team and train them well, for most matches your drive team should be able execute the plan independently from the drive coach. This will let your drive coach focus on making sure the whole alliance is executing the plan and reacting to how the match plays out.
Learn From Others
One of the best thing about the FIRST community is how open and eager everyone is to learn from each other. At the end of each build season we open our school and practice field to local teams to come by and practice, we’ve had some great times practicing with the likes of (188, 1241, 1285, 1310, 4476, 4946, 5036, ect.), and learned a lot about how other teams develop their robots. Most of the time the robots will initially be in rough shape, but having other robots on the field really changes your perspective on the game and increases the difficulty for your drive team. I learned my lesson with 1241 in 2016 to not judge a robot before their first competition, that robot challenged so many of my assumptions about the game and how many different ways you can be successful.
I’m excited to get back on the practice field in a couple weeks with our friends trying to improve and optimize our robots. Hopefully others can chime in and share their experiences optimizing cycle times, and how they focus their robot, strategy, and drive team for excellence.