Inspiration, Ideation & Copying

EDIT: Per Ivan Malik (
I mis-attributed the quote I’m using in this thread. I’ve reworded the post as such.

I read a quote last fall which struck me:

“An idea is nothing more or less than a new combination of old elements. The capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships.”

This quote, which apparently is now so far removed from its original context (per Ivan) as to not be related, still made me think. This post represents my thought process upon hearing the out of context quote, as applied to my thinking towards FRC. I don’t know the original context (I intend to go read up on that) nor are these thoughts based on the original context. The quote I read simply served as a seed for the thoughts below:

At the time, I vehemently disagreed with this concept, but since then I’ve come to appreciate that there is a lot of truth in it. While of course I agree there is still some very novel ideation occurring in the world, the vast majority of the things we typically consider innovations are really just combinations of old ideas.

In my opinion, this is especially true in FRC. (Let’s face it, we’re not doing any bleeding edge research and development here.)

My perspectives on ideation have really shifted since I’ve started meditating on this.

While every so often teams come up with very very very cool, and novel ideas – these ideas themselves can usually be broken down into the pieces which inspired them. Mostly these ideas come from the “real” world. Often these ideas come from past FRC robots. Sometimes these ideas come from CURRENT FRC robots.

There has been a lot of talk this year about teams “copying” designs. Lots of teams claiming “original” ideas. I guess from my new perspective… we’re all copying. All of us.

In general, people are very bad about understanding the nature of ideation and the creative process. This is probably why one of the most common questions for creative people is: “How did you think of that?” It is also why most creative people are terrible at answering that question.

Sure, there are novel and innovative combinations of ideas. Relationships between ideas that maybe most teams won’t think of. Tradeoffs which some teams make that other teams disagreed with for one reason or another during the build season.

This doesn’t bother me at all. What bothers me is that many of us are straight up lying to ourselves about where ideas come from. In the heat of the season, it is rare that anyone tracks where ideas come from, even rarer when they get traced back to the source.

I think it is silly when teams say “We came up with this idea on our own.” What does that even mean? Are you even sure? Who said the idea in your meeting? Do you know what in that person’s past gave them the idea?

Of course – if you do know where an idea came from it is always nice to provide attribution! :slight_smile:

If you don’t know (for sure) where an idea came from… you may want to acknowledge (at least to yourself) that we get ideas from all over the place, and it probably is more influenced by outside factors than you realize.

Something to meditate on.

I couldn’t agree more!
Quite often, as a mentor who has been around for 10+ years, I throw out ideas that come from robots I have seen in the past. Often I get attributed as the source of the idea. I always try to attribute the idea to it’s source whenever possible.
Our “Top dead center” catapult design this year is exactly such an idea. We posted video of our prototyping, but included the fact that it was NOT our original idea. Sure we tweaked it to meet our needs but it is not an original idea.
Following JVN’s thought, I’ll bet the team that inspired me to try this idea did not originate it themselves either. They were inspired to use the concept from somewhere else.

"Then JVN spoke these words. 'I am the one who brought you out of the land of bad design, out of the land of poor drivetrain efficiency. To these I bring you these 3 commandments:

  1. You shall honor no ideology in design other than it being iterative.

  2. You shall not claim an idea as your own, because even innovations come from a combination of old ideas. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.

  3. Everything must be anodized black for maximum performance.’

Chief Delphi said to the people of FIRST, “Do not be afraid. JVN has come to test you, so that the fear of bad design will be with you to keep you from following through it.”

Exodus 20:1-5

The word of JVN for the people of JVN. Thanks be to JVN.

Is black powder coat acceptable?

Bro, I don’t make the rules.

*If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

–Isaac Newton


^ This is very true!

2011 was our rookie year, and the thought of designing a mini-bot was a daunting one! Our mini-bot team searched the internet and YouTube for inspiration until they finally found this really cool idea for a bot that used surgical tubing to clamp on the bar, and used vex parts for everything else.

We stuck with that design, added our own improvements, and we had 100% deployment every time we went for the pole. Long story short, we actually ran into the very team we got the design from, and they were overjoyed that someone had copied their design, and quizzed us left and right about the modifications we made and how it worked.

Anyway, our head coach once said that “Copying is the best form of flattery”, and so if we find a cool or innovative design for a robot and we use it, we had better know who to credit!

To recycle from one of my earlier posts about RI3d robots:

“The hero (inventor) customarily credited with the invention followed previous inventors who had similar aims and had already produced designs, working models, or commercial successful models. Edison’s famous “invention” of the incandescent light bulb on the night of October 21,1879, improved on many other incandescent light bulbs patented by other inventors between 1841 and 1878.” Diamond, Jared (1999). guns, germs and steel: pg.245

The rest of my post is here:

I strongly agree with Jared Diamond that we have a heroic viewpoint of inventors and we deny acknowledging the system that allowed them to be successful: great education, predicate inventions and an environment that fostered trial by error.

My analogy is that is like a increasing the surface of a chemical reaction. By having more knowledge, inspirations and experiments, there more likely a great innovation will come forth.

And here is couple from Dean Kamen’s rude realities:

Suggestion #3: Invent as a last resort. Almost all of the innovations you can think of didn’t start with a clean piece of paper. Find a way to use existing things and make them better.
Rude Reality #3: Invention does not equal Innovation. Inventions are wonderful technical gizmos, but Innovations are powerful enough ideas that they change the way that people work and live. -Dean Kamen

The rest are here:

I think that a team that seeks to be original won’t be not guaranteed that they are innovative. However their endeavor can still inspire other ideas.

In essences the topic is about the nature of inspiration: we take in knowledge and experiences from many sources including predicate devices, process it to make connections and create an ensemble of connections called an idea. Inspiration is a funny thing in our minds and it can come in so many forms. sometimes inspiration leads to copying, all the connections point to copying being the best idea.

so the question for copying is moral. That is a personal choice for many people. Why is copying bad in education, because it denies one connections forged through education. Choosing not to be influence by another idea to avoid copying is the same thing, one is choosing to deny potential connections to create ideas. To me copying homework and choosing to not to copy an innovative design are the same thing, your keeping your mind close.

In 2014, the Average Joes will be standing on the shoulders of JVN.

So will many other FRC teams. Our performance in competition will depend on how well we have iteratively moved the details toward perfection.

The Gurney Flap is one of my favorite examples of this. Some auto racers thought they invented it in the 70s, but it turns out that it had been discovered in the early 1930s! Even if it’s new to you, you probably aren’t the first guy or gal to have that problem.

“You didn’t build that” - Barack Obama

We all stand on the shoulders of giants. None of us invented the wheel or Polycarbonate. However, that doesn’t downplay the value of the smallest invention, innovation, act of creativity, or plain old hard work. Most people that stand on the shoulders of giants just sit back and enjoy the view. Few are inclined or able to build on what they started with.

There is a difference between “copying” and “innovating”. If an idea or relationship is so obscure or remote that we can’t even trace it back to its origin, then there is a good chance that some innovation may have been involved. Perhaps not so much if it is something you saw on Youtube yesterday.

FIRST is not about building robots. It is about building thinkers and problem solvers. Even though we often use other peoples ideas or products (our robot is full of stuff from Vex, AM, and Banebots), I still think it is important to encourage “original thought”.

I feel like the value of a purely original idea is becoming lessened with the internet age. It is too easy for billions of people to hop online and spout out their every thought, and it is well documented. I have heard people claim wistfully, “I thought of that years ago! I could have gotten rich!”, as if it was that single novel idea that led to someone else’s success, instead of all the work and risk associated with implementing the idea.

I strongly believe the secret sauce that allows some to succeed is in the execution of ideas. If we took a single Ri3D example this year, and had every team build a copy, you would still have enough variation to differentiate teams based on their execution of the build. In my opinion, teaching teams to execute is at least on par with teaching them to innovate if we want students to be successful in our modern economy.

When I look at reveal videos, and see those who have both innovated outside of the Ri3D/BB envelope (or even prior year designs) and executed a design wonderfully, I’m blown away. When I see robots that have clearly pulled elements from recent examples, but built a cleanly executed robot, I’m still inspired. When I see a robot at a regional that is very original, but non-functional, it is hard to not be disappointed that a team put in a lot of work and effort to create something they may not even get to play with (versus inspired by their creativity).

I’ve held that belief for awhile. I try to get my team members to watch as much robot video and analyze other teams robots as much as possible. It’s way easier to build something new that works, when you can recall how a bunch of old things worked.

Here is a little attribution for this seasons inspirations.

This movie hit on this point nicely

@47 ish mins

If we are doing anything we are cooking, that’s all design ever was. Sticking ideas together, there is a ton of skill and hardwork to stick them together optimal fashion.



Focus on solving the problem, not on being deliberately creative. If you effectively solve the problem, creativity is naturally leveraged as part of finding a great solution.

I have been inventing things my entire life. As an engineer, I am involved in tremendously creative endeavors on a daily basis. Despite this, I am uncertain whether I have ever had a truly original idea in my life. Most of design and engineering is recombination and optimization of prior concepts.

Originality does not really matter, Solutions matter.
A new solution IS original, even if it is entirely made of old ideas.

Exactly this. Often times I have found if you are deliberately pursuing creativity you will end up with something that is not the most effective solution.


The best idea on our robot this year came from another part of the robot…it just took a brilliant mind to point out that it was the “obvious” solution for a different problem, too.

I tell the students we are not inventing the wheel but learning how the wheel works and perhaps make a little custom improvement here and there.

Our team has no ME mentors that can be here more than a couple times during the build season. We have some wonderful young EE mentors and couple grey-haired EE mentors (me included). So we have real trouble coming up with innovative mechanical solutions (programmers with screwdrivers etc). I try to thank 148 when we see them at regionals and we are loyal local-pickup VexPro customers. But I would be remiss if I did not call out and thank JVN, Aren Hill and the RoboWranglers for all of their ideas we reuse every year. Our pickup this year is like a pickup we did several years ago but it was inspired by a 148 pickup years before. And we are using the choo-choo cam this year - we were lucky enough to be on the Winnovation 2008 alliance in Colorado and were impressed with both Aren and his design.

So thanks to JVN, Aren Hill and the rest of the RoboWranglers! They are the epitome of gracious professionalism. FYI - we have some deep VxWorks (15+ years teaching for Wind River), C++ and electrical expertise if you ever need help (unlikely I know).

Kind Regards.

Yup. I agree that most ideas are not “original” and are composed of pieces from existing ideas.

Like I’ve said in a thread before about 701’s ballista/crossbow style launcher, I got that idea from the human launcher in the “Wipeout Zone” obstacle course on the ABC show “Wipeout,” and it wasn’t and idea that I came up with all on my own.

There’s another reason why the I in FIRST stands for Inspiration.

I know the feeling, at least my team does. Our ball launcher this year, though not based on any Ri3D design, was inspired from our 2010 robot. IT used a 2 stage shooter to kick the soccer balls and, from what I heard, it went off like a bullet.