High school students showcase technology

By Larry S. Moore

April 23, 2014

We walked through the door at the Dayton Regional Stem School looking for the FIRST Robotics Team but were not sure what to expect. Coach Juanita Hicks had invited us to the school for the practice session. She escorted us to the back of the building into an area that resembled a large garage work area.

Here were high school students; some reading, some bent over laptops and some, like all teenagers, eating. I was about to be introduced into the world of the First Technology Challenge (FTC). I wasn’t sure what questions to ask so I decided to start with the basics. How the heck did you build this robot and why did you build it? Parents, coaches and members of the team converged to explain everything.

Coach Kerry Hicks started, “FTC is the third level of the FIRST Robotics Competition which utilizes the 18” x 18” robots. We have to build the robot - all of it. The robot is constructed from pre-fabricated parts. It is something along the lines of the old erector sets only much more advanced. You can also use stock material to build parts. The robot is operated by a ‘Lego brain’ the Mindstorm NXT Lego model. The team learns the mission for the year at the kickoff meeting. The kids have to build the robot to complete the assigned mission using the parts or manufacturing what they can with commercial off the shelf (COTS) material.”

Coach Kathy Levine joined the conversation, “The assigned mission doesn’t change. They compete in match competition. There are 4 robots on the field. The teams will randomly be assigned a partner, called an alliance. There will be a red alliance and a blue alliance. They must work together to get the most points. They go through qualifying rounds, learn other teams and evaluate how various robots perform. The team can invite other teams to be their alliance partner for the elimination rounds.”

She explains the role of the team members, “We have engineers, designers, a CAD expert, and a chassis guy. Someone handles the team identity, marketing and website responsibilities. We have a pit crew to make any needed repairs quickly. There are scouts who take notes on what the other teams are doing for decisions in forming alliances. They do the design, prototype, build and modifications. We have programmers who write the code for the brain.

There is an autonomous mode so the robot must operate by the computer using sensors. There is the operator mode with two drivers. One controls the chassis and the other controls the auxiliary devices. The teams can decide how to address the various functions. It’s a total team effort that is much larger than just the robot.”

Levine continues, “If all that isn’t enough complexity there is the documentation required of all phases in the team notebook. There is judging on the team notebook and presentation which can also win a match. That is an area where this team excels. We have over 325 pages of engineering documentation.”

The team members explained each of their roles. Taylor Butler, Fairborn, began, “I’ve been on the team for four years. I am a senior. I work on design and am a driver but my major responsibility is to ensure we are on track with our timeline. I ensure the engineering notebook is current and meets standards. I am the lead person for our judging presentation.”

David Levine said, “I’m the lead CAD designer for the team. We come up with the design concept. My job is to transfer the design into the CAD software. I designed the robot wheels in CAD. I talked to my physics/CAD instructor who was able to do the 3D printing for me.”

Niky Hicks of Beavercreek notes, “I joined here because of previous experience. It’s a bit harder at this level. I am the chassis engineer and a pit crew member. I hope my future will be in the math and computer fields.”

Tyler Lutz of Huber Heights explains, “I am a programmer. We use ROBOTII which is a deviation of C++. There is a Control Award for excellence in programming. We document our code to describe the functionality.”

Keaton Bonds of Beavercreek, who is also a programmer explained the code to operate the autonomous mode of the robot. He spoke of the basic control theory to use the motor controls to determine how far each side of the robot has moved and in what direction. He explained the code determines if the robot is off course and combined with the sensor information makes automatic corrections. While this autopilot code is impressive, Bonds’ grasp, indeed the grasp of the entire team, of how to apply the technology along with the ability to communicate what they are doing was very impressive.

Additional team members include Coach Isaac Weintraub of Fairborn; Josh Engle, Xenia, who is the engineering notebook manager and lead scout; Cameron Womack, Xenia, who handles the media and is the webpage guru.

They competed in qualifying tournaments in Cincinnati and then the Ohio State Championships where they did very well. However, they were just short of advancing to Iowa, so they traveled to Indiana. There they were on the winning alliance and qualified for the Iowa super regional match. The competition had started with over 840 teams and by the super regional the field was narrowed to just 72 teams.

The total effort required to bring the team together with a functioning robot is a small high-tech business enterprise. All the components of a successful business are in play. These young people are extremely well positioned for the future. The future opportunities are wide open for these kids.

Parents and coaches all concluded, “They own the project. They solve the problems. They can work productively in a team environment. If you are the smartest kids on the planet but can’t work together and communicate it doesn’t matter. These students bring all that talent, ability and attitude to the table.”