Robots Enabled During Judging/Interviews

I’m going to start this off by saying that while this post was inspired by recently watching several episodes of Behind The Bumpers, this post is not meant to be exclusively about that series, nor meant to bash the series (always love any opportunity to see a robot up close, even if not in person).


I’ve noticed that quite often when teams are showing their machine off for an interview (be it for judges, vlogs, or other participants at competition), it is really common to see people interacting extremely closely with enabled robots.

When in High School, I was always taught by my mentors to treat an enabled robot with extreme caution and to keep my hands/body clear of it. These teachings have since been reinforced since working in industry around industrial robots, and having one too many close calls with said robots (one of the few times in my life where I can say I was genuinely terrified for my life). As a result of my past experiences and teachings, I now pass this same knowledge/wisdom off to my students.

I’ve seen many interviews of robots where people have themselves arms deep in a robot while it’s fully enabled (as indicated by the RSL), and seen them have to move quite quickly when the robot moves while they’re not expecting it.

Is this (hands clear when dealing with an enabled robot) not common practice on other teams? Am I overreacting/worrying too much about this?

11 Likes

I agree. It is best not to have your hands in an enabled robot. When we enable in the pit or at our shop And there are people in close proximity. We just use the word" hands" everybody raises their hands to show that they’re not in contact with something that might move.
Although this cannot completely prevent any accidents. I have definitely sustained robot related injuries over the years. Although nothing too serious.

3 Likes

I defiantly agree with you. I teach all my programmers to announce that the robot is being enabled and not to do so until they have either audible or visual confirmation from everyone in the vicinity of the robot. Also we do not enable with anyone touching the robot unless its a very extreme and necessary scenario. We have had many mishaps in the 18 years that I have been doing this but luckily nothing major has happened with a person and a robot. We did have a robot drive off a trailer one year just before lining up for a parade but we have the knowledge to fix that no problem. I am glad that none of my students didn’t try to catch it or stop it because that would have been a lot worse.

But also about interviews, I know for my team we usually have the students doing the talking and if we need a demonstration on the robot its usually the mentors doing the interactions with the robot. I know still not the best but much rather have me or another mentor be in that spot but majority of the time its just tripping a sensor or feeding a game piece and still that is done with a tool, scrap metal, PVC, a pencil or even a pool noodle. A big thing is to train anyone who knows how to enable the robot to always have their finger on the space bar or enter key just in case!

2 Likes

Probably not. The absolute safest, no-thought-required answer is just keep distance from an enabled robot (or, any robot with stored energy).

It’s important to keep in mind the reason for this - moving robots aren’t actually an issue - it’s having a human body part in a pinch or crush point for something which might unexpectedly move. So… while it’s not generally recommend, I wouldn’t go as far to say that any hand incursion into an active robot is always unsafe. Really, like most things in life - it’s a probabilities thing. Weight the probability of injury against the time/productivity cost of mitigating them.

It’s best to establish good safety procedures, and make sure everyone follows them. A standard of “never touch an active robot” is certainly a good one that will prevent most issues, with fairly few downsides. Other approaches could be viable on a case-by-case basis.

Safety is always important. Violations of procedure are always bad. For judges and video, it’s just this extra level of criticality - not only could you get hurt, but you will leave folks with a bad impression of your ability to follow procedure. Bad for PR.

2 Likes

Our team is trained to loudly announce “Robot Enabled” - even when it’s sitting on a transporter.

1 Like

I mean, even a disabled robot can be unsafe

(@me almost smashing @Karthik’s fingers that one time)

I understand it’s quite tricky from a production standpoint to get the shot you need with the host, robot, and student(s), especially in crowded pits. People end up closer than is usually exercised.

9 Likes

It is, and it shouldn’t have happened in our interview. Thanks for pointing out areas for us to improve our training.

3 Likes

It’s all fun and games until someone loses a thumb. :scream:

I can’t speak for other teams but on both my high school team and my current team we definitely do not allow students to have their hands on the robot while it’s enabled. And although this does not eliminate all risk as Troy said

It does minimize it

I have personally seen and experienced disabled robots moving in dangerous ways (usually due to gravity or stored energy in the form of pneumatics/springs)

On both my former and current teams we require whoever is enabling the robot to first make sure all people are clear from the robot and then like many other teams announce that the robot is being enabled.

This is good practice in my opinion.

All this being said when doing an interview during which you’re showing off your robot for something like FUN sometimes its necessary for production value and the lack of space to enable the robot with people in close proximity. This can be done in a perfectly safe manner if careful attention is paid to import aspects; making sure no controllers/joysticks/button pads are placed in a way that a button or joystick could be getting bumped by anything (ex. place them on a flat open table or hold them), making sure teleop is selected before enabling (not practice or auto), making sure whoever is enabling is on standby to press the enter key in a moments notice, and making sure everyone involved knows that the robot will be enabled and exactly what parts will be moving at what points in the interview. (climber moves when talking about climber intake moves when talking about intake etc.)

Interviews like this are the only time on my team personally that student hands are ever allowed on an enabled robot. We always discuss the safety aspects first and make sure the environment is very controlled and that everyone around knows exactly what will be moving and when.

1 Like

One thing we did this was year was have the serializer and flywheel constantly slowly spinning when enabled. This adds more visual and also audible signifiers (the clicking of the gears).

It was very important this year since all the beam-break sensors in the serializer could be triggered by someone’s hand and cause the rollers to spinup to full speed.

9 Likes

My head immediately went to alternate solutions, specifically this one ala Kevin Malone:

If we could just get him to yell “Robot! Robot! Robot!” we could put it on a little audio player on all the robot carts and solve another problem. Jk, no please.

4 Likes

the truth that exist amongs many many teams (including mine), is that we dont treat our safety as seriously as we should, robot has been enabled many times while students were very close to the robot, sometimes drivers will drive the robot very close to people, i feel like this is not only in my team, it is very common for small teams that often work with one or no mentors around

3 Likes

I very very very seriously hope there are NO teams within FIRST that allow students to operate industrial tools/equipment (robots included) in an unsupervised setting.

With regards to other comments made in this post, I do agree there are certain situations where being close to an enabled/powered on robot is necessary. This is something that on my team would be reserved for a mentor to do, while trying to ensure as controlled an environment as possible.

We also follow the practices others above have mentioned when enabling and disabling a robot. You can regularly hear myself and others in our pit loudly announcing “hands clear!” As someone does a visual check to ensure the area surrounding the robot is clear before then enabling the robot. It can take time training new students to understand just how important this step is before enabling a robot, even if it’s “just a drivebase on blocks”.

Without direct supervision… I guarantee this is happening all over first.

6 Likes

My team starts the season with the best of intentions, and between mentor shortages, experienced students, waivers that protect the team from liability, and the pressure of the build season, we often let this slip a bit.

I think people can judge safety for themselves. Obviously it’s the safest to be away from the robot while it’s on, but many times that’s not realistic

We know our robots inside and out. We know what they are capable of and not. I would feel comfortable showing off a turret or elevator, or actuating an intake and running it. I would not feel comfortable sticking my fingers near the drivetrain while enabled.

I think that if your robot isn’t safe enough to be around while it’s enabled on a cart, you should probably rethink what you’re doing. A good cart lifts the drivetrain off the top so that it can spin freely

We take a lot of safety precautions on our team with the robot, especially when it’s around new people, but at the same time, our robot is safe enough (with some small code modifications) to be driven by children at community events

I do think it’s valuable to show how a mechanism works while it’s on, and I trust teams to do it safely

3 Likes

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. If you need legal advice talk to your lawyer. Having leadership responsibilities for youth serving organizations for a long time I have thought about risk management quite a bit. Keep in mind laws vary quite a bit between countries and states.

The problem with waivers:

  • Parents cannot sign away the rights of a minor. Minors cannot sign legally binding contracts. So waivers start off with limited value.
  • Regardless, for a waiver to be binding it has to cover specific risks and consequences. A general waiver signed at the beginning of a season is about valueless.
  • One thing a well written waiver it useful for is to demonstrate that the participants knows the risks of the activity.

Actually without proper training people are bad about understanding risks. Things that look quiet dangerous are not and other that do not are.

9 Likes

I agree with this. But the flip side of this coin is that newer students often take their cues from the older students and think it is safe enough to be around a robot because they see the older students (who know how to be around an enabled robot safely) doing it.

So I think it is important to have restrictions about who can be around an enabled robot and possibly even training and qualifications to be around enabled robots just like we make sure that students are properly trained and qualified before operating machine tools.

There are also times where things don’t operate as expected. We had a situation in 2019 where one student was working on the field (adding some vision tracking to one of the field elements, if I recall correctly) when another student enabled the robot that was decently far away (15-20 ft) from where the first student was working. For some reason, the robot started running the autonomous program and quickly drove toward the first student. Luckily she saw it coming and was able to avoid it. Although we had protocols in place about making sure that everyone was clear of the robot when it was going to be enabled, those protocols had not envisioned this scenario. So, we revised our protocols to make sure that the field was clear when we were enabling the robot and if anyone needed to be close to the robot when it was enabled, they were only allowed to enter the field after the robot was enabled and clearly behaving as expected.

We try to ensure that we don’t use any power tools without supervision, but we only had 1 mentor for both mechanical and outreach and driving practice is more important to the team. We are still very safe and announce and check before we enable, but direct supervision is not always possible.

1 Like

Our team could be stretched to say we have students using tools in an “Unsupervised” setting. Our shop is bigger than most teams have and we are lucky for this. This does mean we have a room with our router in it, another room connected with all of our “industrial” machines (any machine that you can’t just pick up and walk away with), a hallway, a class room with our 3d printers in it, and another large room with our full practice field in it.

There are times (very rarely but they do happen) where students are using a tool and there is not a mentor in the same “room” as them even if we are all in our facility. We allow this because we have a very strict training system before you can use any tools. For tools that are “common” in a school wood/machine shop we use the same tests that the school board requires students to pass for those classes, which are mostly paper tests. We then go a step further and actually make them show properly setting up guards, holding material properly, checking the right blade/bit/whatever is in the machine etc.

When I was in high school there were times where in our woodshop the teacher would be in his office and I would be at least 4-5 full closed doors away from him working with a machine way more dangerous (such as a surface planer) than what we have in our shop currently. If the school board believed that was fine I think trusting a student (who has passed all of our safety training) to step into another room to cut something on the bandsaw or use a 3d printer is not something for the community to be up in arms about.

On to the main topic of the thread, we are a team who has been featured in a few Behind The Bumpers and our robot has been enabled with students around it. When these interviews are happening the pit is cleared of any student who is not necessary for the interview. The robot is disabled. A mentor is in front of the laptop to enable and disable it. Either a mentor or our driver has their hands on the controller the whole time. The controller and laptop both as far from each other as safely possible so incase something happens to fall on our work bench it is unlikely to both enable the robot and hit the controller. When it comes time to actually move the robot for said interviews the mentors and students all visually show they are clear from the robot, it is enabled and a mentor will feed the game pieces. This is the same process we use for judges, showing others how our robot works, and general testing of the robot between matches.

I understand that safety has become a hot button topic on Delphi this offseason and I have always been a big proponent of doing things as safely as possible but trust me we don’t want to let this topic balloon to much. If we do then it will turn into a rule where “Robots may only be turned on on the practice field, or in the ARENA.” Which is something I am sure no one wants.

2 Likes