Thoughts after my first "FIRST" season

Well I just got back from my the Buckeye Regional. This was my first experience with a First robotics competition as a coach, or as a player. I thought I would take some time to share some of my thoughts on my teams rookie season and hear what some of you have in response.

First of all the competition was amazing. It was an incredibly overwhelming experience and I wish there would have been more information ahead of time to help prepare me for it but I absolutely loved it. The atmosphere was great, and it was amazing seeing all the great designs and robots that other teams brought to the competition. I loved the cooperative spirit between the teams and how helpful everyone one was while we were there. Competing was great and succeeding was even better. We didn’t have the best of showings, but we were the only robot to consistently and successfully be able to hang our ubber tube on the top rung using the middle starting position. This allowed us to get three ubber tubes up when our alliance partners were each able to hang one. Now aside from all the great things I can say about the weekend there were some definite frustrations.

  1. Multiple times during the completions their routers glitched/overheated/something causing our robot to not respond. The first time it happened, the robot using our station the round before ours experience the issue, during our round our robot and the one next to us dropped at the exact same time, and then the robot to come on after us in our station had the same issue. When we went to speak to the tech official or whatever his title was he dismissed us and said it was our fault not theirs without a moments notice. The same problem happened again at a later time with other robots in rounds before and after us in our station having the same issue. We were again dismissed say it was only happening to our robot when that clearly wasn’t the case. Both of those matches my team lost by a small margin of points and might have easily made the difference between us moving on to the elimination. I heard the term GRACIOUS PROFESSIONALISM used a million times that weekend and I did not feel like we received it at all from them. I have some students on my team that are technically gifted and knowledgeable far beyond what that guy will ever be(I truly believe that) and he dismissed them like they were stupid little kids. As a rookie team with a thousand hurdles and obstacles to already have to jump over, it was really hard to so others arise due to equipment issues of the game operators. We were already underdogs enough.

  2. I know there is an emphasis about everything not being about the robots and the competitions, but the reality is that the competitions and the robots is what makes first what it is. It is what we build for…we build to compete… if it isn’t supposed to be about that then don’t have the competitions and first as an organization will probably die out. The competitive aspect is what gets everyone excited: spectators, students, mentors, everyone. Without that you wouldn’t have the amazing ingenuity and the incredible learning that takes place. Now just because we are competitive doesn’t mean that we are not able to also benefit from all the other amazing things that first represents and stands for like coopertition and what not, but I think it is really important to try to protect he sanctity of the competition. So if competition is valued then I think equity is an important part of that. Obviously it is already a tremendous advantage for many of the teams to have access to a tremendous amount of resources and expertise that my team will never dream of having because we aren’t next door to a Ford Motor Company or something like that. I have accepted the fact that this is how it will be and that’s fine. I do however think that those issues are compounded even more when teams travel the country competing in 3 or 4 regional event having extra time to drive, build, modify their robot simply because they have the funds and the resources to do so. If they are going to be able to do that then I should be able to keep my robot for all the extra weeks that they are traveling around working on theirs, it simply makes a lopsided competition even more lopsided and honestly quite disturbing.

You can’t tell me it isn’t about competition, I saw the faces on the kids of the teams that won the buckeye regional. Competition is everything and it was discouraging for me to see how incredibly far and seemingly impossible it is for my team to ever find itself in that position. It is hard to see these powerhouses come in and take away our chance at achieving “a greater level of success” just because they can. It feels a little like bullies on a playground or something.

Now all that being said. I don’t want to leave the impression that I can’t stand First. This season was absolutely amazing. Working with my students, all the things they and I learned, the regional competition were all absolutely incredible and I will definitely be back next year. There was just some stuff that got to me a little bit.

Would love to hear some thoughts, really on any of it. Maybe even hear if other teams experience the signal issues that many of us did at the buckeye regional.

Don’t have the mentality that power-houses are this unreachable goal because of all these wonderful things they have. This year’s Michigan State Championship is a good example. 217, 469, and 201 got knocked out by the 8th alliance in the quarter-finals. You should instead look at them (powerhouses) and see what they do that you could use in your team to be more successful. Everyone in FIRST started out small. Put an effort into expanding your team’s outreach and resources.

Problems are going to happen, prepare for it. We were plagued by problems in our two district events making us sit still a few times. 27’s arm malfunctioned at west michigan costing them the ability to hang for some of their qualification matches. 67 sat dead a lot of matches at Kettering from communication issues. Every team experiences these problems in what seems the worst times, don’t pity yourself too much and think of how to fix them and prevent them next time.

FIRST Robotics Competitions can be tough to succeed at completing the challenge more effectively than veterans but look at 2010, 2 rookie teams made it to Einstein.

Getting the resources to make an ever better robot, takes a lot of work, combined with a lot of “desire to win”. And the neat thing is that if you do what it takes to get those resources, you’ll build a very strong team that inspires more students. Win-win situation.

The competition is intense, but in the end it’s just a game. Try to keep it in perspective, you can always come back next year and try again.

FIRST isn’t perfect, it is what it is. Sure, there are things that are frustrating and annoying, but you can get over them. I think it’s worth it. A positive attitude helps.

Yes, the field has issues. Just realize that every team has the same chance of experiencing those issues. Field problems don’t stack the odds against any particular team, though I’m sure it may feel like you experience them at the worst possible times.

Think of it this way: if the difference between your performance and that of a winning team was small enough that a few seconds of communication issues was enough to alter the outcome, does it really matter who got the trophy? I’m sure it matters greatly to you now, but in the long run it won’t.

Take this as motivation to improve your software next year, so that you can win regardless of field issues. There is no guaranteed success in engineering; only a probability of success. Yours could have been 0.99 this year, and you just happened to hit that unlucky 1%. So next year make it 0.999.

Communications between the robot, the driver station, and the field are monitored continuously during matches. Also battery voltage, enabled/disabled status, packet loss and round trip time. Those are the readily accessible items, visible on a screen during the match. With digging more information is available but it is unusual to have to go that deep and there would have to be a specific reason to do that while running matches.

If the FMS (Field Management System) lights are all green and your robot stops moving, it is almost certainly something on your robot or driver station that is causing the problem. But there are many ways this can happen ranging from weak batteries, to shock loading, to poor programming.

In LA and AZ we kept logs of dead robots and had people delegated to track down the real issue any time a robot died in a match. While I think we had far too many, all instances were ultimately traced to either team hardware or robot programming.


A great honest post!
I like the fact that you folks gave it your best effort and it bothered you a bit when you saw the powerhouses win. To me, it shows that you care and want to put things in place to build a better robot and a more competitive team the next time around.
The answers are all over CD, communicating with teams in your area, and others in the FIRST community.
Trust me, 12 years ago from a little old rural town in HI, we felt the same way when we went to San Jose to compete our rookie year. We are still not there yet, but every year, we set goals to improve ourselves, and chip away at areas for improvement. This is despite the fact that along the way, you lose great people, big sponsorships, and a changing administration at the school. Working to adjust to those challenges that are unique to your situation, is constant and demands your full-attention 24/7.

Be sure to take advantage of the withholding allowance. If your resources don’t allow you to work on the entire robot at multiple events, at least you can optimize a critical subassembly.

Perhaps FIRST will expand the Michigan “district” model to your area in the future. It gives you have more access to your robot and lets you play a lot more matches for the same entry fees than the current regional structure.

A reasonably consistent autonomous mode is something most teams can only dream of… getting that far is a huge step!

Field problems are not a new issue. The FTAs are extremely busy, and simply do not have time to chase gremlins. Unless it is an obvious field fault, they can’t chase it. At every event I’ve been to there have been rumors of certain stations being less reliable (i.e. Red 2 goes out more frequently), but statistically it is probably a team’s fault.

And badmouthing the FTA in a public forum is not going to get you a lot of sympathy.

This is absolutely the wrong way of looking at this. There is a great quote from JVN:

“Never, NEVER stop striving to increase that output, and increase your inputs. To do anything less is a BS cop-out.”

My high school team started in a classroom with a registration fee fronted by parents. We didn’t move in autonomous that year, and we didn’t get picked for eliminations. We did have a great time though. Three years later, we had access to an entire vocational school of tools, and all the shop space that went with it. We had enough sponsors to comfortably fund the team, and we ended up winning a regional winning alliance captain. (Still had trouble with autonomous though :o)

Midcoast Maine is not known for its deep engineering resources either, but we acquired a large number of extremely knowledgeable mentors and put a reasonably competitive robot we could be proud of on that field every year.

After attending Buckeye my rookie year, I was all about the competition side of FIRST. It wasn’t until I attended another regional (Boilermaker in Purdue) that really opened my eyes. The thing about Buckeye is, it’s been going on for so long, and there’s a completely strict schedule going on over there, extra emphasis on strict.

Buckeye is incomparable to other regionals. It is hands down one of the most competitive regionals in FIRST.

  • edit -
    And about the FMS problems, 3266 tirelessly tried to help their neighbors 276 with their problems since Thursday evening. It wasn’t until Saturday morning that a FIRST official finally came and told them their router’s converter was too close, sending off some kind of signals, which was found to be complete bs after comparing our robot with theirs. (our converter was pretty close, if not closer to our router than theirs.) Buckeye will always hold a special place in my heart as the first FIRST regional I ever attended, but I really think they had some major flaws to work out with their support staff this year.

I really appreciate the honesty that you’re expressing here. Frustrations happen, and knowing what they are can only help the competition improve (after clearing the air a little bit).

I think a lot of control system problems can be traced to: We’re putting together a network full of stuff that isn’t designed to take dynamic shock loads and putting some key connection pieces into places where they can just get slammed around. This in addition to using a lot of parts from various manufacturers… That said, the FTAs and Field Supervisors know the full system very well. They’re trained on it. No offense to your kids, but I think they’d be out of their depth if they were to try to operate FMS without any training. (How much trouble do teams have with setting up their control systems every year?) I would be too–I’m an ME student, not an IT expert! Even the FTAs sometimes have to call in backup; I’ve seen the guy who designed the system called in to deal with issues.

If there is a problem in the FMS portion of the system, they will either know about it, or it’ll be virtually impossible to trace. If it’s on a robot, it’s anybody’s guess what it is, hence the designated issue-trackers at L.A. and AZ.

Regarding your comments on the powerhouse teams: Yes, there is that disparity. Not every team in baseball is the Yankees or the Red Sox. But here, there’s an invitation that the powerhouse teams issue: Come, join us at our level. We’ll be glad to help. Maybe they can’t help with funding or machining directly, but they can help you find your own sources. Maybe they can’t ship you a couple of mentors–but their mentors have contacts, and maybe some of those contacts are interested in helping out a team who wants help. If you can’t beat 'em, join 'em and then beat 'em at their level.

One thing that can really help you for next year: So the teams who travel to multiple events get more practice time with their robot, right? Time to improve, tweak, and do other stuff like that.

If you can keep the materials from this year around, you can negate just about any of those advantages except competition conditions. Keep the motors, gearboxes, kit framing, all that sort of thing; keep your robot together if you can until right before a new one is built. When you build next year’s robot, build 2. One gets the older equipment; one gets the new stuff. Small differences are OK in this case. Now, as soon as the competition robot goes out the door or into the bag (with or without its control system–you’ll want one on the second robot), start driving the other one around. Start driving both as soon as possible. If you have charged batteries, you can use the practice robot to drive, test automodes, score, and try other cool things. If the tread on the wheels goes down to nothing, you’re probably doing something right–replace the wheels/tread and keep going.

You’ll notice some tweaks that can make your competition robot better–those go straight into the Withholding Allowance. You can do scouting–watch a couple other regionals and see what strategies are used, then try to beat them in practice. Call up any other local teams who have some form of practice/old-but-still-running robot and invite them over if you have space–both of you benefit from the driving/strategy time. Hey, even scout the teams that will be at your event ahead of time. Do they have tendencies that you can use against them?

You’ll be back for next year; I expect you guys to come back ready to play at elite level. And I’m sure I speak for most if not all of CD when I say: “How can we help you do that?”

I’m not dropping a plug or anything, but if your team has $500 in the bank account and hotel expenses for two nights, you should go to the Indiana Robotics Invitational this summer. Not only is it three hours away, but it has built a culture of a “who’s who” in FIRST. You’ll get regional champions, past and current CMP division and Einstein winners, and there is no pressure at all: it’s not the real deal, but a really great team experience.

I’m certain teams like 33, 111, 234, etc., will be happy to explain to you their team structure and show you how they designed their robot.

The time between now and July is your opportunity to grow your team’s operations and hone more technical skills. Improve your robot in any way you see fit before IRI. Construct a pit that can convey your team’s message, build a better control board, build a better robot cart, and get your kids to buy into becoming the next 1114 or 365.

You will have to WORK for your team to become self-sustainable. I know this to be true: your team either has to be smart enough to run itself, or has to be too stubborn to quit (like us). When you work towards goals you can form between now, IRI, and 2012 kickoff, try to snatch up any victory you can get, and parade around your schools, your town, and your district.

To win year in and year out, you have to not just embrace the change in culture yourselves, but become the change your community to embrace. The more people that know you exist leads to more members, which leads to more success, which leads to more outreach, and allows the perpetual cycle of awesome to continue. Don’t let the haters bring you down, and don’t badmouth the powerhouses; work to prove your supporters right.

We expect great things from you, as with all other FIRST teams.

Congratulations on surviving your first competition. The shock and awe are over for a while.
The relationships you build at events like this are priceless. The best teams the ones are ready willing and able to help you develop your team’s full potential. SparX will always be grateful to the veteran team X-Cats (191) for helping us get started. Take advantage of the teams in your area or on Chief Delphi for help, tips and encouragement.
I’m sorry we didn’t have the opportunity interact more with your team. My favorite memories of this event have little to do with the wins and losses, but how well our students performed and the teams we helped. Even our student alumni (who are a big part of another regional) helped the event staff. Coming in second is a great teachable moment for our lessons learned meeting as well.

It’s not about the robot or even the outcome of the competition. It’s about developing the students and perhaps even the events we attend.

Mitch Milton
SparX mentor

P.S. I’ve seen that FIRST listens very carefully and to our feedback about every competition. Take advantage of this.

A reliable autonomous for your first year is amazing. Field problems - they happen to everyone. Had we not been having communication problems (which were probably caused by our design) last year, we very well could have made it to elimination matches on Curie.

Competition isn’t about the resources you don’t have, it’s making the most out of what you do have. For the 2010 Season, Metal Mustang Robotics worked out of the wood shop at our high school. No fancy CNC machines, no special lathes, we could only dream about a trailer for competition. If you saw our robot, you’d see that up front for the kicker, we had 2 nice circular pieces. Those were the result of a hand held plasma cutter and 3 days attached to a drill press and holding a angle grinder to the roughly cut piece. Yet working out of a wood shop we went on to create the top scorer and number 1 seed at the Oklahoma Regional. Fast forward to the 2011 season, our team got picked up by the school district and moved to a state of the art facility. But being picked up by the district meant we had to adjust to what else that meant too. We extended our hand to the other schools, helped integrate Team 2334 into our team because their sponsor had stepped down. There were plenty of problems that arose from this but we pushed on. As the season grew, the problems lessened. We became a close nit team. And we went on to be the 8th seed Captain at Greater Kansas City and the 18th seed at Midwest to be picked up by the 6th seed as their first pick.

I whole completely support people’s suggestions in going to IRI. I’ve never been to IRI but I’ve seen the team list. The teams there are always powerhouses. But they’re powerhouses for a reason. There’s more to them then just what resources they have or what trophies they’ve gotten. Talk to the teams about their season. We’ve all had a rookie season before, some with crazier stories than others. We know what it’s like. I’m even recall hearing about a rookie season over the kickoff webcast where they showed up to their competition with the robot completely disassembled in a multitude of Fed-Ex boxes. Get to know veteran teams and they’ll show you the ropes.

All in all, keep on trekking. Who knows, maybe next year you’ll be waiting in queue for Einstein. There’s the drive. Now get your team in gear :slight_smile:

Team 964 had communication problems in Matches 70 and 79 at Buckeye. Our Alliance lost both matches :mad:

You would benefit from some of the knowledge gained at the Championship Workshops, particularly those by Karthik Kangasabapathy and JVN. WPI ThinkTank also has MANY other great presentations, yet John and Karthik both stress two things:
1.) Design within your team’s capabilities
2.) Do ONE thing well rather than trying to “do it all”

Building your team up for success takes a LONG time in some cases due to student & mentor capability. In our case, it took 5 seasons; finally we were worthy of a #1 seed just this year. Finally, our robot moved every match. Finally, we were able to make our practice matches without major elements missing on Thursday. We still had our own set of issues to work through (no team has a maintenance-free robot), yet it was our drive and passion that got us through them.

You’ll get there, keep at it!

And never forget – sometimes, you DO need some luck on your side.

Never forget that it takes time and dedication to become as good as a “powerhouse” team. Our team experienced a great amount of growth this year cause the team absolutely flopped last year but they were lucky enough to come a cross a mentor that helped pick them up by the hand and shown them that they can accomplish anything.

A lot of people get bogged down by the lower number teams but then you forget exactly how long have they’ve been around. You can’t just win stuff like Chairman’s or know exactly how to build the perfect robot overnight, you have to build towards it as a team and it becomes so much more satisfying when the team finally earns the award and you look back at the successes the teams’ achieved to make it there. It takes years to build amazing teams.

I tell my students everyday to “strive for excellence” and as a team we keep marching on and the results show. We’re not “powerhouse” level but we’re planning to reach it someday and we fully understand that we have to work for it.

In First you are never alone.

If it were not for the help we received these last two seasons from other teams like team 48 and team 1038, we would still be putting together the first kitbot.

There will always be powerhouse teams in anything we do. That helps us set goals.

There will always be glitches and problem. That helps us with critical thinking and trouble shooting.

We had some connection problems. But we also found rebooting the driver’s station before each match helped.

IRI is a great event even if you only go to watch. You can talk to any of the teams in the pits.

There is another event in your backyard, CORI. It is a one day event and I think it only cost us $50.00 to attend last year.

In First you are never alone.