Experience with Rules in Other Robotics Competitions

Inspired by other topics, both recent and older, I’m curious as to see how much exposure to rulebooks and enforcement methods from other robotics (and engineering) competitions posters on Chief Delphi have. How do these other rules compare to those in FRC and FIRST in general? What are the higher level stylistic or philosophical differences to writing/enforcing the rulebooks? What best practices would you like to see implemented? What worst practices would you like to see avoided? How has competing in other events changed your perception of FIRST’s rules and enforcement?


To start, the most obvious parallel to FIRST & FRC is the VEX Robotics Competition. VRC is, in a way, a spiritual descendant of FRC given that its founders were FRC veterans and designed a competition structure that mirrored much of FRC (new game challenges each year, multiple team alliances, random qualification matches followed by an elimination bracket, games loosely modeled after the sports structure, etc). The most obvious key difference is the closed ecosystem of parts in VRC, which obviously eliminates a great deal of the necessity of “The Robot” section of the FRC manual in comparison. The 2019-20 VRC manual is 40 pages long and can be found here.

A couple particularly interesting rules from the VRC manual:

G3 Use common sense.When reading and applying the various rules in this document, please remember that common sense always applies in the VEX Robotics Competition.

As well as G12 (I’m too lazy to format that long rule for CD), which includes messages regarding the intent for the game to be played offensively (scoring points rather than stopping the other alliance from scoring), and a red box (equivalent of a blue box) that certain designs are legal but to be attmpted at the teams’ own risk. Additionally, G13 spells out that the scoring robot gets the benefit of the doubt.

There’s also the R1 rules regarding “one robot per team” which may come into play in the post-bag era of FRC.

Finally, there’s this red box underneath T4 (robots at the field should be ready to play), which spells out some of the powers and enforcement mechanisms for competition organizers.

The exact definition of the term “promptly” is at the discretion of the Head Referee and the Event Partner who will consider event schedule, previous warnings or delays, etc.


Once you get past FRC & VRC, you start to see wildly different formats for competition rules and enforcement. In my personal experience, I competed with my university’s ASME chapter in an ASME student design competition back in 2008 to design an autonomous window washing device. While I can no longer find the rulebook online, suffice to say the rules weren’t particularly clear and the enforcement of them was left up purely to the judges at the event (who were invitees to the ASME conferences each competition was held at, which was also their first exposure to the rules). The end result was the vast majority of the competitors not actually being allowed to compete. If I remember correctly, 11 schools registered, 8 actually showed up, only three passed the “inspection” equivalent, and two of those three were later disqualified after competing (this included our entry, which had the highest score). The result was the winner was the single of the eleven registered teams that was ruled at having a legal design at that event (and the definitions of legality varied significantly between events).

An immediate “worst practice” that jumps to mind for me from my experience in that competition is the disqualification of teams after they compete, rather than before. I think FRC’s inspection process generally does a good job of preventing this issue (although there have been a couple notorious exceptions over the years). Another area that FIRST does well is having referee and inspector training. While there are definitely volunteers who are greener around the ears, FIRST at least tries to get qualification for its “key volunteers.” This process certainly has taken its lumps and has a fair bit of criticism, but its better than what ASME provided at this particular student design competition.


Looking further into competitive robotics, its hard to ignore combat robotics. Both large and small scale.

Looking at the Battlebots rulebook, one of the things I notice (besides the wildly different safety standards and the largely open ecosystem of parts) is how much trust and faith they place in the judgement of teams and competition officials. There’s a lot of subjectivity. The battlebots rulebook is only 8 pages long, and contains several references like these ones.

Section 6. Construction Materials
Basically, we do not want to have to clean up a big (or toxic) mess after a match.
a. Prohibited materials
This is not a comprehensive list. Be sensible. Check with BattleBots if you are unsure whether or not materials used on your robot may be prohibited.
[…]

Every bot (or at least one bot that is part of a MultiBot) must have a real weapon (or multiple weapons). If the weapon does not look like it can damage or incapacitate another bot, your bot will not be accepted.

Pressures above the stated limits may be approved if you can convince us that you have necessary knowledge and experience to safely engineer such a system.

There’s a lot that left to the judgement of the producers/organizers of the competition.

Even on smaller scales (both physically and organizationally), other combat robot organizations have similar-ish rulesets. For instance, NERC (Northeast Robotics Club) has these statements for the 30lb Sportsman Class

The rules listed below are not exhaustively written to account for every possible circumstance. We will do our best to explain our intent, and it will be your job to remain within that intent. If we feel that a design or feature is exploiting the intent of the rules or the spirit of the class, we will disqualify it without hesitation. Certain requirements or limitations are intentionally vague. You should not design your bot to push the limits of the rules. But rather, you should intentionally build with the following simple guidelines in mind:
[…]
Do not attempt to skirt the spirit of the class or your bot will be disqualified.

They also list examples of past robots throughout the rules. They also have additional rules for events at specific venues (such as limitations on LiPO batteries at Franklin Institute).


What experiences do others have with the rules and enforcement of them in other robotics and engineering competitions? How do they stack up against FIRST and FRC?

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I competed in a small event last year called BotShot. The intent of the game was to make a robot that could shoot baskets in order to play a game of HORSE against three other teams. There were seven universities total, four came to Minneapolis to actually compete.

The competition was to some extent put together by AndyMark and played mostly by FIRST alums so you can picture the robots for the most part. The rulebook is 19 pages long including drawings of the field. We were given a AM14Ux frame and FRC control system+HERO, but didn’t have to use it. The only limitations on the robot were size, weight, and total motor power (3000W)

Robot-wise this was pretty freeing. We did a few teleconference inspections, but nothing at the event, including not being weighed.

There were other problems with the game, but nothing wrong with the rulebook in the spirit you’re asking. It was freeing to not have to digest a huge manual to make a working robot or go through a rigorous inspection process.

I attribute the simplicity of the rulebook to a few things:

It wasn’t necessary to push the rules to their limit to have a competitive robot. The core of the competition, how good you were at shooting basketballs, wasn’t limited by the amount of power you could put into your shooter, your weight, or anything else. This made it both easy for the teams to follow the rules and the refs to not care as long as no rules were egregiously broken.

The teams were also trusted to be smart about their robot designs. Our battery and shooter motor choices (LiPo batteries and a 2000W BLDC) were outside the FRC ecosystem, which wouldn’t have been possible with more prescriptive rules.

Robot Fight Night (formerly known as Andymark Fight Night) has some pretty good rules. Except for the gaping loophole concerning definition of cardboard.

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Are competitors allowed to make their own cardboard?

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… this was actually a serious question. I’m not familiar with the rules and curious what the loophole is.

But flags are cool too!

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I think the OCCRA game manual is a great example of how the method that VEX uses in it’s game manual can be applied to some of the FRC challenges as OCCRA operates closer to FRC scale.

The 2018 manual can be found here, and the 2019 game and manual will be released on September 9th.

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Sorry if I hit too close to another ongoing discussion about material definitions – my intent was just to cite Fight Night as a positive example of rule making. Even if the cardboard definition rule evolves in the future, I think the organizers have done of good job interpreting the present rules fairly.

Nothing against you, Richard!

I’m just curious what this loophole is. Like I said, not familiar with the rules. How is it a loophole? Have people taken advantage? Has it since been closed?

Check out the Foreword, rule G01, rule R03, the Glossary definition of cardboard, and pertinent Q&A replies at the link in my earlier post. I may be using too strong a word, calling the definition a “gaping loophole.” Many of the robots, including the one my own team entered, have chassis components that are not easily recognized as cardboard until you’ve considered the rules carefully.

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I dont know the exact details, but a lot of the successful teams definitely laminated cardboard layers together for strong structural frame pieces. Essentially if you didn’t do this you were gonna have a tough time surviving the event.

I like the rule book for Power Racing Series.

Its very common sense based and covers most technical issues with readable language. Also, they generally explain what or why a rule is there.

And its funny, but that’s its own thing.

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Though I haven’t been a competitor, being a fan of Robomasters lead me to their English manual, which for a comprehensive manual (including awards, event dates, etc.) is 140 pages long for their entire season.

For FRC I think we could definitely get away with a smaller manual if the evergreen rules (the ones that don’t change) were a continually published online document, not unlike FIRST Tech Challenge does. Like, the event and tournament structure, release CAD and code in advance of the season, etc rules could safely be put on a page (for example firstinspires.org/frc/seasonrules) and the first page of the big game season manual would be “please be sure to also read the evergreen rules pertaining to X Y Z on the FIRST website at the following URL before going through this one.”

The Power Racing Series rules that @Katie_UPS posted are my favorite “rules manual”. Especially the clause that lets people build ABSURDLY COOL cars.

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I’ve helped for a few years at Emporia State in their (mostly middle school) robotics competition, that uses Tetrix parts. The rulebook is pretty minimal. The game has basically been the same, but with modifications to fit the venue.

What is interesting is just the last 2-3 times, teams started using game-breaking strategies. It coincides with a larger number of teams (around 40 – about 30 being school teams and 10 university teams (for the teacher’s college classes learning about STEM competitions)). A few years back there was less than 20 teams.

Basically, this does come down to game design. The issues usually are where there isn’t a good way to ref the loophole. Especially with a mix of ref/scorers, most without much experience. But again, while with a small competition you can get away with rules that are enforced in a good will manner, you start to encounter more conflicts and start to need some stricter rules to maintain consistency. Being inconsistent is where you will catch the most problems.

24 Hours of Lemons rules have a similar je ne sais quoi
https://24hoursoflemons.com/prices-rules/

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I’ve competed in several other competitions, MRDC and robot football.

MRDC rules are relatively similar to FRC rules. We get the challenge roughly in Nov-Dec with small modifications afterward. There are no contact zones and some penalties for egregious defense. The robot rules are pretty loose. Use whatever control system you want, and get the robot inspected. The inspection is just a simple can you e-stop, size and weight, and any illegal parts(flame throwers, high powered lasers, disco balls, etc) and no ridiculously high PSI pneumatics. Game rules from last year.

Robot football is much more structured. Robots have a size and weight limit. Certain types of robots like wide receivers and quarterbacks need a tackle sensor installed (basically an accelerometer that Notre Dame makes.) game rules and robot/mic. rules

I once competed in SAE’s Aero Design competition. The rules didn’t change much year-to-year other than the size (well, other than the outright ban on fiber-reinforced plastic in Regular class that came in during my time–didn’t apply to the props, though)–the engine had to be a stock, unmodified*, particular engine, you had to be a certain size, etc. But the rule I most remember was this: “Violations of the spirit of the rule will be held as violations of the rule”–and they were pretty decent about making clear what the spirit of the rule was. After the ban on FRP was in place for a year they realized that a number of teams used stock engine mounts that were FRP and those were legal along with the props following that.

*At one point, this resulted in routine open-clean-rebuild being illegal. Organizers paid attention to teams asking WTH and changed it to “You can clean it, but all the parts have to be from that original engine”.

I also competed in a different competition, NASA’s Lunabotics. That one saw a rules change at competition because people couldn’t follow a Q&A that was crystal clear and asked several times to be sure. “Hey, about that Big Red Button… Can we rig it so our controller still runs after we hit it but outputs are disabled?” “No, no electricity.” “Seriously, please?” “No. You heard us last time.” “Let me get this straight: BRB is pressed. You want zero electron flow on the robot. Is that correct?”* “YES. That’s what we want.”** At competition “Since so many teams need power to their controller after the BRB is pressed we are going to allow you to keep the controller powered.” Yeah… my team wasn’t particularly happy about that.

*That might have been me asking that one…
**We did in fact design our robot to do exactly that. The laptop we were using as a controller was run off of one of our dual LiFePO4 12V batteries with one set of systems, and a slightly different set of systems ran off of the other.

I like the rules for NURC, there is a 100 lb weight limit, and 50V and 1000 W power limit, and you can’t use wall power to run your robot…there are divers in the pool.

Other than that, have fun, do whatever you can dream up.

speaking of 24 hours of LeMons, I like the LeMons Rally rules better…you have to post pictures/videos if you want points, and you can’t do a few dangerous things that would be a violation of the event insurance policy, but other than that, have fun, make sure your bribes are good enough to get you the points you need to win. If you care about winning, which is kind of beside the point.

In the early 2000’s I was on theRFL rules forum representing Twin Cities Mech Wars. If you like flame throwers on Battlebots I am the person to thank. If you don’t like flame throwers… you know where you can stick it.

Interestingly enough, the first time I ever heard about FIRST was actually on the RFL rules forum. Bob Pitzer of Team Raptor was challenging the head of the Minnesota Precision Manufacturing Association as to why they were supporting Battlebots IQ instead of FRC. Pitzer was very convincing that FRC was a much better program than Battlebots IQ and had much better future. Granted this was roughly 2004 so I had 3 year old and didn’t really care about high school programs.

I was also an inspector and judge at the Battlebots event they held in the Twin Cities in 2004 (never broadcasted). Most of the inspections were done by me or Al who currently represents Dunwoody as one of the main sponsors of the MSHSL championship off season event.

The College-level Baja SAE frame rules are a fairly well executed, but that’s also due to going on 40 years of evolutionary development and an extremely tight-knit inspector group (IIRC the majority are MEs at Polaris, and part of the Polaris competition sponsorship is the inspector/judges continued involvement as a unit).

There are specific requirements in the frame design to preserve participant safety in the inevitable rollovers, with specific tube diameter & thickness (equivalents allowed with calculations, it’s college-level), and proscribed frame members with specific designs (the roll hoop must be continuous…) that are required. There are some safety-related measurements (“is the car big enough?”) that are determined by measuring from the surface of the drivers helmet, wrist, or knee to inspectable surfaces of the chassis. The rules are sufficiently succinct, proscriptive, and static that most experienced inspectors can complete frame inspection in fifteen minutes or less without a checklist, and any disputes with teams about the frame are cut-and-dried affairs.

Also, all the competitive cars look very similar.

(Beyond that, students are expected to use FEA to analyze the system - if your car gets in a rollover and no longer meets the frame specification, you are DQ’d. This is very similar to getting e-stopped for a loose battery or bumper.)