Is allowing a practice robot good for FIRST?

There’s been a couple of threads in the past asking which teams build two robots, and then one asking if building two robots is good for the students.

It’s been recently ruled that it’s perfectly legal for FIRST teams to build a practice robot for students to practice with during the time after the ship date and between competitions. It appears that a number of voters agree that practicing between competitions is good for the students.

But is it good for FIRST?

Knowing that a number of teams build practice robots and that a number of influential team mentors have advocated this openly on these forums for a number of years makes this a somewhat delicate issue, especially because of my opinion will not be popular with many of them. I hope this starts a discussion that can offer a variety of input and worthwhile discussion.

FIRST is supposed to (and fortunately does!) mirror real life engineering problems in many ways. Each team having the same number of motors, a spending limit, and a size constraint attempt to somewhat ‘level the field’ for all teams, such that they’re all playing by the same rules.

I think we can all acknowledge that this fairness does not make every team equal. Some teams have more money, more talent and more experience then others, and will consistently build better machines than new teams year in and year out. Not all teams are even. Making them even is absolutely impossible.

However, I would like to think, that in the end, FIRST should genuinely try to reduce areas of the competition that separate the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. You can’t take away good engineers, make robots free to build or give every high school a six-axis CNC from which to cut their parts. Teams will have inherent advantages. Again, making them even is absolutely impossible.

However, there is such a glaring advantage which only ‘have’ teams can gasp on to: building a practice robot. I think FIRST really needs to address in the years to come.

Can’t we all agree, that having a ‘No Practice Robots Allowed’ rule in the future would be very a simple and effective way to reduce the gap between teams with lots of resources and those without?

FIRST often explains itself as a 6 week robot competition, but in all reality, for many ‘have’ teams, FIRST is a year-round, comprehensive program. The build season is simply split into 6 weeks of building followed by 6 weeks practicing, design tweaking and coming up with 8 hour buildable upgrades for the Thursdays of competition.

The ‘have-nots’ simply have a 6 weeks of building followed by a few weekends of competing.

FIRST should strive, in my opinion, to create guidelines around reducing the gap between the teams with massive amounts of resources and teams with a limited amount. These rules, however, should not not inherently limit the creativity of robot designs or strategy.

For instance, FIRST has gradually been allowing a greater number of parts and suppliers to be used to build machines. To ensure that teams with million dollar budgets don’t build machines purely out of titanium, the cost rules are in effect to provide checks and balances.

In my opinion, the glaring exception to the checks and balances system is allowing the practice robot. The incredibly simple way to ensure that every team has the same amount of time to construct and practice would be to simply disallow the construction of a second robot, effectively making the “6 weeks” a true 6 weeks.

Let’s say you, a common non-FIRST person, standing from the outside, heard that there was a 6 week long robot competition and you only had a limited amount of time to build, test and practice with you robot. Then you heard that the biggest and most effective teams actually built a second robot so they could practice after their real robot shipped. Wouldn’t you just call it what it is? A loophole. I certainly would, because that’s exactly what it is.

The fact of the matter, however, is that FIRST says it’s okay and not a loophole. I respectively disagree, and hope that in future years they’ll change their mind, and that the FIRST community does too.


I think this is an incredibly valid argument.

Teams with the ability and resources to build a second robot definitely have an edge in competition over teams without this luxury. Our team most certainly does not have the money or resources to do this.

Is it bad for FIRST? I don’t think so. The competition is one aspect of FIRST experience, but the aim is to inspire and recognize Science and technology. I think holding back teams that could build a second robot is contradictory to this ideology.

While it may give teams with more resources an advantage, it doesn’t take away the underdog’s spirit :slight_smile: The advantage is only in the competition.

A team with the resources building an incredible robot (or two) and winning the competition and an inner city team with relatively few resources struggling, but still managing to build a working machine in six weeks and compete when few thought it possible are equal engineering triumphs in my opinion.

Matt and Steve,
Learning doesn’t stop with the build season. Practice robots are good for so many reasons, I am not sure I can count that high. When we complete a robot, pack it up and ship it, we get a chance to relax for a little while, but our students are still fired up and open for more knowledge. (don’t forget that for many schools, this program is also a credit class and that requires constant class time throughout the year.) It is the practice robot that allows them to practice what they have already learned. It gives electrical students a chance to see what can go wrong in mechanical systems. It gives mechanical a chance to see what small software changes can make in a perfectly working mechanical system. It allows teams that build them, a robot to use for demonstration at schools in their area and to show off to potential donors and school board members. If it were not for the practice robot, our students would not be prepared to help out other teams, recognize hardware weaknesses, software bugs, or electrical problems. And above all, it gives teams a testbed to find problems with new hardware that were not obvious during build. I do not believe FIRST would have advanced as far as it has without this additional time to play and learn. If you take away practice bots, you might as well take away post season events, workshops, white papers and CD.

I agree that allowing a practice robot creates a wide gap between the have and have-nots in competition. However, FIRST realy isn’t about competition. The game is only one very small facet of a much more complex aim, inspiring students to get fired up about cool robots and how awesome technology can be. As Dean said at kickoff, whether the robot wins or not doesn’t matter. That robot is simply a vehicle to get kids inspired to learn more about technology. Ultimately that is the goal of FIRST. Sure, there are aspects of this competition that mirror the real world, with deadlines and building relationships and other things as well, however those are secondaring to the ultimate goal of FIRST, For Inpiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. That’s why practice robots are good for FIRST.

I come from a veteran team, team #95, but we are in the “have not” category. Right now we are $100 in debt and have no $ to buy materials for our robot. We have never had a practice robot ever, yet most years we are incredibly competitive. The biggest thing that makes a team competitive is how well the team functions as a unit. Since we have an all-student pit crew and drive team, and virtually only students build the robot, we can diagnose any problem almost instantly on the field and we know the limits of our machine. But of course the second most important thing to being competitive is having a driver and operator with good skills that work well together and a drive coach that knows how to use them. I believe that any team can sport these few traits and can therefore be very competitive. Having huge resources to draw upon does make life much easier for the well-sponsored teams, but it makes me feel good to win matches when everything is stacked against us.

Yeah but the problem is that real life engineering does involve the creation of practice robots for prototyping and other things. NASA has working?? prototypes of the rovers sitting here on earth to practice with. It’s practically the same reason why people build practice robots in FIRST. Your robot is somewhere else so you need something to work with to test potential failures. So the problem is that if you take away practice robots then you take some of the aspects of engineering.

I’d have to agree with Matt, but one question comes to mind.

If the rule is made, would it do any good?

It doesn’t mean a $@#$@#$@#$@# thing to some teams if a rule prohibits what they’re doing; it would be naive to think that there aren’t teams who are going to violate the Fix-It Window or who won’t bend or break rules in other ways. The practice robot has become a large part of the strategy used by the bigger and richer teams, and I’m not sure if telling them that it isn’t allowed would accomplish anything. Since this would be a relatively easy rule to break - after all, who sees the practice robot beyond the team that owns it? - I’ve got a feeling that a lot of teams would break it. As much as we try, we can’t get everyone to exhibit GP and follow the rules.

I might just be pessimistic, but I really don’t know if this would have an effect.

Personally, I think the practice robot CLOSES the gap between the haves and the have nots. Okay, maybe this is not true for the real hardship cases that can’t afford to buy materials, but I think this is true for the majority of teams.

Here is why I believe this: Take two teams: team A has a small machine shop at the school - your basic mill, lathe, a drill press, a band saw, and some hand tools; team B has a fancy professional shop complete with 3-D CNC machines, wire EDM, and all of the latest technology to kick out whatever parts they want.

Team B is much more likely to be able to kick out a robot with two weeks to spare giving the software team time to test and debug and the drive team a lot of time to practice.

Team A is much more likely to barely finish the robot, throwing it in the crate with a few things to finish up. They were lucky to get any practice in whatsoever.

Allowing practice robots gives team A a chance to get some practice in so they are not at such a huge disadvantage to team B that had two weeks to practice before shipping.

While team B can obviously make two robots faster than team A, I argue that the build cycle of a 2nd robot is much faster than that of a first robot, especially when the robot is built at a meager shop. Anyone that has made anything knows that it takes usually less than half the time to make the 2nd part than it took to make the first (since you learn a lot while making the first). While the mill is already set up, why not make two copies?

Anyway, for the real hardship cases that can’t afford materials, I can agree that they won’t be able to make two robots. But for the average team that can afford materials but can’t afford CNC machines, a 2nd robot is the only way they’ll be able to compete (from a driving practice standpoint) against the teams that can bang out parts with fancy technology.

The thing that most worries me about practice bots, and some of the richer teams, is that to rookies it seems as if those teams have a mentor to student ratio of about 3:1, and that basically this competition is designed for teams like that. I worry that many rookies will not return because of this. On the other hand FIRST is supposed to be about learning. The best solution would be for them to supply teams with enough stuff to build two robots. This would promote the concept of designing before you build (something my team sees no reason to do), so that you have a design to work off of, even after ship date. It would also level the playing field by bringing the bottom up, rather than the top down. Then again it would be incredibly expensive. Whatever.

Would not the previous year’s robot serve the same purpose though? Inspiration and learning aren’t specific to any particular game or setting. As Matt so eloquently put it in his post, a practice robot based on the current game would give the higher resource teams an advantage over teams without. If Software people want to learn about mechanical systems, or electrical to learn about pneumatics, or any other group learning any other aspect of the machine, the same can be learned from a machine not geared towards the current game.

That’s not to say there aren’t advantages to a practice robot, as have been stated in other threads. Of course, there’s plenty to learn about the current game in terms of strategy and robot capability, and naturally these are good things. The big problem (and main purpose of this thread) is that not all teams have this capability, and positive as the experience is for one team, another team can see it as an unfair advantage in competition.

If you take away practice bots, you might as well take away post season events, workshops, white papers and CD.

The main point in this thread is that practice robots can give teams an unfair advantage in official FIRST competition. Once nationals and the official season has ended and the off-season begins, the sky is the limit in terms of development. Teams can work on robots and do essentially anything they wish without fear of rules (unless they plan to compete in post-season events, in which case modifications are governed by each event’s specific rules). There is no fix-it window or guidelines on building things for learning/inspiration. The white papers and workshops really have nothing to do with this either. Workshops are designed to build skills and enhance knowledge of available parts and capabilities, but otherwise have nothing to do with the specifics of the game. Same for white papers, and ChiefDelphi is a resource where it all comes together year-round. They are all tools to directly aid teams in building a competitive robot, but are available to all teams at all times. Practice robots serve only teams with the resources available to build them, and while providing insight into how said teams will perform in competition, they detract from the meaning of the six week build period by extending prototyping and testing past the ship date. And again, for purposes of learning and inspiration, other machines can serve the same purpose, without giving extra time to work on an already shipped robot past the deadline.

I’ll have to disagree with you.

I think that one of the most fantastic parts about FIRST is that the biggest and most successful teams are also the most abiding to the rules. The stereotype of the ‘haves’ being dishonest, un-GP, or perpetual cheaters is absolutely untrue. While it’s true that this ruling would be nearly impossible to police, it doesn’t mean that teams would blatantly disobey it.


yes i think its a great idea.

This is absolutely true. By allowing teams to build a practice robot the gap between the “haves” and the “have-mores” becomes narrower. However, building two robots is about a lot more than having an advantage.

When a team decides to build two robots it is a pretty large decision. More money must be spent, a significant portion of team resources must be directed away from the main robot during the 6 week build to start a practice robot, and they risk not finishing it and wasting everything. In most cases a team has to start assembling their practice bot while finishing up their competition bot because it is not worth it to finish a practice bot 3 days before your regional. The 2 robots will usually be built side by side.

This process is more a challenge than an advantage. Teams that decide to build two robots take on much more that teams that just build their competition robot.

I believe that if teams want to take on the additional challenge that building 2 robots presents, let them have at it. They will earn the right to practice more and tweak to perfection.

Allowing practice robots is good for FIRST.

But can you honestly say that working on an offseason robot and learning from that is as inspiring as working on your competition robot? I don’t think you could make that statement. There’s an excitement, a rush, involved with working on a robot that will compete in a regional or nationals. It trumps, in my oppinion, any kind of inpiration that can be fueled by an off season event or activity. FIRST is learning yes, but a lot of kids will choose not to learn about stuff if they’re not too terribly interested (we’re lazy). The FIRST season creates an atmosphere that really can’t be beat, and it’s learning and working with robotics in that setting that gets kids fired up about science and tech, particularly, learning and working to perfect something that will compete. A practice robot helps to further this goal of inpiring kids to learn, getting them that much more excited and involved.


Since your expertise is more electrically oriented and mine is more mechanical, we haven’t had a lot of exchanges on CD, so as a precursor I’d like to say that I truly have a lot of respect for you and your experience. That said, I think that the part of your point I highlighted above actually exemplifies the problem I see with the practice robot.

Your statement of:

is essentially saying

*it gives teams with more resources the testbed to make their machines more competitive after the build time is over.

  • And I think there’s the problem with that.

I’m certainly not proposing this, and for obvious reasons. Though I’ve never taken a course in logic, this is somewhat of a straw man’ type of counter argument. All of the above learning tools are either free or have a much low budget and time commitment than building a second robot. They’re in a separate category.

My argument isn’t that we should handicap the better teams to make the equal, limit the engineering quality of well designed robots, or limit learning to students. My stance is that FIRST should try to increase the fairness of the competition by giving all teams the same amount of time to build, test and practice with their robots. The current loophole of a practice robot should be addressed and fixed in future competitions.


As someone who has been on both sides of this spectrum, I would have to side with the “allow practice 'bots” argument.

I am currently the team leader for a rookie team who is, to say the least, classified in the “have-nots” category. We’re struggling right now to get enough money to just make a robot. But we have good kids and good mentors and we’re going to make it because of our passion.

When I was on 67 the HOT Team, we always had practice 'bots. Anyone who has seen team 67 would classify them in the “have” category. They work hard and continue to do so, to gain and keep a good relationship with their sponsor who provides them with such things as the materials and machines to create a practice machine. Therefore, they have a bit more than others.

The way I see it, these are just byproducts of the fact that some teams will always have more than others. Those who want it, who have dedicated students and mentors, and who really care about the program will come back year to year and will work to get things that they want such as practice 'bots. This gives groups, like the one that I’m in charge of now, something to work for, something to look forward to. Give people something to want, to desire, all of a sudden you’ll see them work harder than they ever have.

(This is solely my opinion and does not neccessarily reflect the views of my team or the rest of its members)

Wow. Great arguments.

This sort of reminded me back when teams with great sponsorship and dinero (‘haves’) were able to get their own portable machine shop for competitions. If something needed repair, the team simply went to their trailer and were able to work on it with their equipment. I felt FIRST was right in saying that it was an unfair advantage at competitions for teams to do this, and that the only way to allow this, is if you opened up that portable machine shop for all teams at competition. And I know that some teams, in fact, shared their equipment which is really nice of them. :smiley:

Back on topic. I feel that FIRST should not put too many restraints that would actually hinder a team’s ability for students to learn more about math, science, and technology. However, I do believe that FIRST does its best every year to make the game as fair as possible, to quote, “… to make jumping on the train a bit easier.” Even though team’s are not created equal (equal experience, equal sponsorship, etc.) they do have the same problem, the same kit, and the same deadline. I also believe that it is important for each team to look at other team’s “solution” to the same problem. Furthermore, it is important for people to congregate and share those ideas with one another, in order to better appreciate everybody’s “solution” and to learn more ideas, techniques, and information to make their “solution” more effective.

So does making a practice robot make students understand their robot better? Maybe so depending on how it is used. I cannot honestly say at this point. But our team last year built a a really basic plywood robot during the build season. We used it to allow our programmers to practice and make programs for autonomous and to figure out how to make the sensors (specifically the IR sensors last year) to work.

“But in the end, we all have to remember, it is not about the robots.”

*Keep in mind that teams actually building a main robot and a practice robot are technically building two robots in six weeks. More work for them. The only real problem I see with practice robots are teams that are able to tweak their practice robot after the deadline, and use it as the competition robot instead. As ungracious professional as it sounds, this may tempt teams to do so.

And I will have to disagree with you. While it is nice to think this, many teams don’t. Behind the shroud of GP, many teams have alternative strategies, as well as ways to not only bend the rules, but also go completely around them.

I agree 100% that GP is extremely important, and that many teams exhibit wonderful practices emphasizing GP. However, don’t kid yourself; this isn’t a perfect organization full of perfect, rule abiding teams. Many care much more about winning than following the rules, or the practice of GP. Even some of the “biggest and most successful”. They may hide it well, but it is there.

On the topic of practice robots, it provides an excellent way for teams to get driving practice, as well as a way for more students to get their “hands dirty”. This is especially true for large teams. However, I don’t think it is beneficial to have this robot readily available. Weather or not it is legal, I don’t like the idea of a team swapping out two robots when one is damaged (I’ve seen it done). I think this takes away from the “repair” and pit aspects of the competition.

Tis’ a double edged sword.

For all the “have not” teams, we must assume that the game will go on with the practice robots for the “other” teams. Therefore, a “have not” team can do the following:

  1. Become a “have” team by doing a lot more fund-raising and awareness-generating in their community to fund a 2nd robot.

  2. Partner with another team in their town that has a 2nd robot. You never know if those two teams will be pitted against each other or will be drawn as alliance partners; so just ask the other team to time-share their practice robot, field, etc.

  3. On your own “have not” practice field, just simulate a robot by pushing a team member around in a wagon or shopping cart. Sure, the actual driver skills are important, but even more important to the driver is the strategy of the game (traffic on-field, other alliance robots, own alliance robots, etc.)

  4. Look on E-Bay for used FIRST robots…ha, ha.

The game moves forward ONLY…

The issue here between “haves” and “have-nots” is far, far less about money or CNC machines. It is about mentorship. How many teams have the MENTOR / COACH / TEACHER resources to expand the season from six weeks (and a few weekends) to four months? Or to year-round?

In addition, how many teams have a space where they can build a full field where they can really practice?

One of the major issues that FIRST must address is what kind of time is it going to ask from its volunteer mentors and coaches?

-Mr. Van
Coach, 599