The secret, and the future, of the FMS return deadline

December, that calendar month that occurs immediately prior to the annual kickoff of the FIRST Robotics Competition, is already pretty packed with happenings of all kinds. During that month, folks of many backgrounds will celebrate various holidays, deal with various weather, tolerate visits from out-of-town relatives, toil in the kitchen over special meals, and much much more.

But curiously… there’s something missing. In stark contrast to the rest of the year, FIRST just doesn’t seem to dominate this month of December: the one month of the year when hype about the upcoming FRC season should be at its absolute peak!

Why are there no [1] FRC off-season events in December?

One narrow reason for these lost hype-building opportunities is that FIRST HQ must reserve some time to update the FRC field electronics for the upcoming season. These electronics represent an enormous investment and must be reused from year to year. As a result, HQ requires these electronics to be shipped back to Manchester, from everywhere they’ve been deployed around the world, in mid-November.

This is the FMS return deadline, and here’s the thing: over the years, it’s been slowly shifting earlier.

The event my team helps host (the Rumble in the Roads) is currently held on the last possible pre-season weekend, just before FIRST Chesapeake must separate out the field electronics and send them in a container back up to NH. Presumably events such as Brunswick Eruption get special dispensation to run just one week later in the year (or maybe MAR has a later deadline because they’re closer to New England than we are).



FIRST is growing [2]. As FRC grows, the number of fields serviced by HQ grows as well. If this growth is extrapolated, we observe that FIRST HQ essentially becomes primarily a playing field management and logistics company [3]. What will happen if the staff needs more time to update the FMS for the next season? Will the FMS return deadline adversely impact such important off-season events as RahChaCha Ruckus and Ramp Riot? If so, how should FIRST HQ address this? How should the player community address it?

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[1] Some non-FRC offseason events not using the official FMS, such as the Bunnybots Chesapeake event, are held in December.

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TKTbbf4z1PQ

[3] AndyMarkup.com

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I’m disappointed moreso that we lose two months of training time if we intend to “end” our training period with an off-season event. Given that the fields need to be sent back to HQ, is there anything we can do as teams to make the process as easy as possible so we can keep working with our fields as long as possible?

Cheesy Arena.

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That’s certainly a solution, but then it’s up to Districts to let you run Cheesy Arena with real field hardware and that’s not something you can do with confidence everywhere… Plus, getting all of the Cheesy Arena hardware on non-West coasts might be a bit difficult.

I have ran Cheesy Arena from my MacBook, a heavily spec’d gaming rig, and a really basic Microsoft Surface. All three options worked really well. Its not picky.

The officially recommended switch and access point are honestly pretty inexpensive. Those would get you the most true experience since VLANs are employed with the advanced hardware.

If you’re just looking for an FMS to tell the driver’s station when to go, but you don’t really care about VLANs, just grab a spare router you or a team has laying around, a couple dumb switches, and you’re good to go.

One good solution would be to make the FMS completely open source, on both the hardware and software side. Providing an officially supported shopping list of components that teams could acquire relatively easily (e.g. Raspberry Pi) would make it even better.

I’ve actually been disappointed in how much of the FRC software is a black box for a while now. The laptop I carry with me and use for everything runs Linux, and a substantial number of my students in recent years have similar setups. As adoption of FOSS continues to increase, there’s less and less of an excuse to make something as fundamental as the driver station software completely closed source, with no cross-platform support whatsoever.

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My guess would be they’re terrified of another Einstein 2012. But that’s just speculation.

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I’m not terribly familiar with the FMS, but isn’t it essentially a computer with dedicated PLCs running the field elements?

ETA: I mean the hardware, not the software.

Security through obscurity is how you get Einstein 2012 to happen again.

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Preaching to the choir.

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While I appreciate the desire to have a cross-platform DS (and there are a few team-written ones that have been published over the last few years), there are good reasons for the official competition DS to be (at least somewhat) closed source, and only allow Windows for competition. The two reasons that jump to my mind are safety and support.

  • On the support side, CSAs, FTAs, and FTAAs have enough trouble with the variety of Windows laptops out there with strange quirks… adding Linux and Mac and team-customized DS’es to the mix (each with their own networking, joystick, etc quirks) would significantly multiply their support burden.
  • On the safety side, you do not want a team-customized DS to break the safety protocols built into the robot/DS/FMS system and endanger folks in or around the field.

A potential solution to the latter would be a “signed” DS, so only an unmodified one would be allowed for competition, but there’s still the support burden to worry about. And still a concern for safety in non-competition settings like in the shop, at outreach events, etc.

On a more practical front, the current DS is written in LabVIEW and a rewrite into a cross-platform application would be a significant amount of work, particularly given the oddities in joystick and networking across platforms. I think people don’t realize how much code in the DS deals with those things. The FRC networking environment is rather unique, with lots of connects/disconnects, changing networks/IP ranges, DHCP servers, link local, USB connections, etc.

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wait what happend on Einstein 2012

Here’s some reading for you.

thanks

This is nothing new, unfortunately. We’ve worked with FIRST for several years to get the deadline pushed back for the forward-deployed field in MN so we can run the Minne Mini Regional the weekend before Thanksgiving. A large part of the reasoning for it is the FTC and FLL tournaments being run at the same time in the same building. It’s a great way to highlight the breadth of program offerings, and continue to inspire younger students to stay involved as they grow up.

That said, it’s been harder each year to get this exception. We’re fortunate to have a state grant this year to buy 5 AndyMark fields and get them up and running across the state (That process is on-going, and those fields will likely have limited availability during the upcoming season as they come online). We’ve already discussed next year, and the likelihood that we’ll need to use one of those fields instead of the forward-deployed field for that event.

FIRST has to do a lot of work to get each field ready for the season - they’re essentially giving themselves 4 months (early Nov through the end of Feb, so a little less) to do all that work in. If you include shipping times and holidays, it’s probably closer to 3.

As a mentor, I actually think it’s fine. I don’t want to be running to an off-season event in December. That’s the time for training seminars and mock-kickoffs around here, with about 2 weeks off before kickoff to get ahead on sleep. Personally, I find it difficult even to make it to the MMR, as I’m usually travelling that weekend. Between now and the end of the year there are 10 Saturdays. My team has an event of some kind on half of those (And that’s after having events the past two Saturdays as well). Please, no more!

Why doesn’t FIRST just provide the software for the field and rely on the districts to provide their own hardware? It’s obvious to me that we are shifting to a district system, so the only base that needs to be covered is the non-district events, which FIRST HQ could still provide until everyone is district-based.

I know the PLC hardware and sensors/cables are prohibitively expensive. That said, that’s why I asked earlier about the hardware… If there isn’t a huge change, IE: a PLC processor change etc, why not just push out the programs and have the district people load everything.

Although, as I’m writing this, it occurs to me that not every district could/would have their own AB license. That alone is crazy expensive, so perhaps that’s one of the primary reasons. It’s one thing to load a server, but the PLCs need proprietary software…

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Probably because then FIRST has no control over the FMS and also there could be standardization issues

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Citation needed. It’s naive to suggest that FIRST wants everyone in a district system.

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When talking about the field, FMS, and what you need to run an event, it is important to remember there are three components to think about: the hardware (the physical field components), the software (FMS, ref panel software, etc.), and the electronics (lights, magnet tippy trays for the cargo ship).

Cheesy arena is a valid substitute for the software, but doesn’t address the hardware or electronics.

Some regions have their own fields (or, like MN, have plans to acquire fields soon), but that typically only includes the field border. Game specific elements are more of an open question. Luckily when FIRST needs equipment back in the fall they usually do not want game specific elements to come back, so those could be reused for later events.

Electronics are more tricky. HQ always wants those back, and while you could argue some (e.g. lights) are not necessarily critical to the game, some are very important (e.g. tip trays, sandstorm controllers), and the lights still add a lot to the game. Some games also wouldn’t make much sense without the lights (e.g. Aerial Assist with the lights indicating the “hot” goal).

I don’t have an easy solution, I just wanted to point out that Cheesy Arena doesn’t address all of the issues that come with needing to send the field back to FIRST.