There has been a recent uptick in interest in the FIRST Tech Challenge from the community due to recent circumstances, most notably from FRC teams turning their attention to FTC after the recent IFI controversy. There have been many posts on the problems of FTC, from the program feeling like a JV feeder to it being the forgotten child of FIRST’s programs. I wanted to take time during this to draw the community’s attention to a problem that I think goes overlooked but has very consequential impacts on the program and its future.
I want to talk about vendors in the FIRST Tech Challenge and how FIRST HQ treats companies attempting to enter this market. More broadly, I want to shed light on what I believe is behavior that should change in order to better the program. The current way that FIRST treats vendors in FTC needs to be improved.
I am writing this chiefly as an alumni of the program, secondly as a mentor of the program, and third as a vendor in the program. I recognize that my perspective and experiences have been biased by my own financial interests in this program, but this writing is far more than my own voice. This is something I would have made regardless of if I was a vendor or just an alumni, although I would not have had as much first person experience to put in this document.
The conditions in FTC are ripe for vendors to enter the market. However, what there aren’t the right conditions for, is innovation, growth, and development. New products are developed and released all the time by the major non-FIRST partnered vendors, but they are pretty exclusively either different versions of older parts or extremely safe mechanical parts that are analogs of other, older parts. It’s understandable why this happens, the entirety of product R&D is dependent on the whims of a GDC that seems to change its mind from month to month. The constant guillotine of the Q&A hangs over the head of anybody daring to actually put time and money into R&D. They don’t answer hypotheticals, nor is a ruling on a hypothetical definitive.
The combination of the Q&A opening so late into the season (effectively a month after kickoff), the game manuals being written in an extremely vague way, rules being made up on the Q&A (universal joints being legal despite clearly having multiple degrees of freedom, as well as products being banned for rules not present anywhere), randomly banning parts, including mid-season (1 degree of freedom lead screws and 1 degree of freedom claws being banned for having “2 degrees of freedom”), and all the other barriers in place, create an environment nearly perfectly designed to prevent thinking out of the box. (There are more examples in the document linked at the end, there is too much to talk about in this short CD post).
What should be changed
Perhaps this was the intent, after all I get the feeling COTS rules are designed with non-FTC specific vendors in mind. Maybe the possibility of a company deciding to plant itself into the program and wanting to interact with FTC in a major way never occurred to them. However, it makes figuring out what the GDC actually intends incredibly difficult and dangerous. For example, while the concept of game challenges is mentioned in the Game Manual, it is not defined there nor in previous Q&A answers, and, to my knowledge, autonomous localization being a game challenge is not mentioned anywhere nor would this be expected given the Intel T265 (a camera promising all in one complete localization) is legal. This did not stop the GDC from ruling it as such on the Q&A, banning a mechanical part that aims to accomplish a subset of what a camera sets out to, while, on the same year’s Q&A, declaring the camera legal.
So what do I want to see changed? I think the surface level change that will probably have the biggest impact is a rule similar to I101, MAJOR MECHANISMS in FRC. Spell out that you want MAJOR MECHANISMS banned with a list of exceptions, and stick to it. This is certainly the option most likely to happen, but I don’t think it addresses or solves the fundamental issue here.
I think communication needs to be massively improved between vendors and FIRST. Not necessarily emails, I understand the challenges there. However, at the very least, there should be a Q&A open before the season starts, when Game Manual part 1 releases, to ask about product legality questions. This is still very late in the product development cycle but at the very least allows some flexibility and breathing room, as opposed to when legality is decided at earliest a month after kickoff. (Sales data indicates that there is a massive spike in orders right after kickoff, which starts leveling off almost exactly when the Q&A starts answering questions).
And when I say open before, I don’t mean a week before kickoff. I mean when Game Manual part 1 releases. And let vendors have Q&A accounts so we can actually ask questions rather than hoping teams ask them and not mess them up (the exact wording of questions has led to very different answers in the past).
The absolute best scenario would be for FIRST to allow vendors to email them and work privately to explain the intentions behind rules. This will absolutely never happen, but would be above and beyond for figuring out where you can concentrate R&D efforts. It can also open dialogues with vendors which I think would be useful for FIRST.
If this feels like a summary, that is because it is one. There is so much I want to discuss here, so many pieces of history and evidence and context I want to say, but this post is already insanely long as it is. I have a pretty substantial breakdown of the history of FTC, Vendors, COTS, and “How we got here” as well as many more modern examples of the GDC’s opinions. It is quite long, but it is there if you want to read more.
As an alumni of this program, a mentor of this program, and a vendor of this program, I am asking FIRST to recognize that its current course of action with vendors has issues. The current state of the program is bright, it’s promising, but it can be better. There are changes that can be made to introduce more vendors to the program, who are able to bring costs down and increase accessibility for everyone.
I recognize that my perception may be biased, being a vendor with a financial stake in the program, but this is an opinion that is held by many members of the program, many alumni who have left, and many mentors continuing. This is a viewpoint that has been talked about behind closed doors outside of public view for years. I want to bring it forward for more to see and discuss, in the hopes that change is made.
Alumni of FTC 7244 OUT of the BOX Robotics
Axon Robotics R&D