FIRST Robotics with Team 5905

I had a wonderful time volunteering as a mentor for Team 5905 of Basis Silicon Valley. They are are a rookie team competing in the FIRST Robotics Challenge for the first time. Each year FIRST creates a unique challenge for high school students who design, fabricate and drive their robots to victory.

image of mentoring

The specifics of the challenges vary widely, but generally they involve two teams of 3-4 robots in an area that is 25' by 50' competing to gather or shoot various objects into goals. This year's competition is called FIRST Stronghold. In includes some tasks that have been common in past years, such as picking up and shooting foam balls, but it also has some unique challenges such as the presence of rough terrain.

FIRST certainly does great things for students by introducing them to concepts in STEM fields. Personally, I participated in FIRST during my senior year in high school which influenced my decision to attend an engineering university. Still, I think there is room for improvement. Right off the bat we should get one thing straight. It would be more accurate to call it the FIRST Mechanical Engineering Competition. I am not suggesting that the competition could or should attempt to represent every STEM career, but branching out a little bit could be done with some very small changes, and would benefit the students greatly.

Currently, there is a 15 second period at the start of the match where the robots are autonomous, meaning that they drive themselves rather than be controlled by a human operator. There are bonus points given for completing tasks during those 15 seconds. This period attempts to incentivize teams to learn about controls and software. It falls short for a number of reasons:

  • Mechanical engineering work as a prerequisite: There is no rational incentive to dedicate resources to the autonomous portion until a team is 100% sure they will have all the mechanical work completed.
  • No partial credit: The rest of the competition gives incremental points for each task completed. In the autonomous portion each task builds on the last one. This forces students to focus on the tasks in order, rather than explore the concepts that they find the most interesting. In practice this means that most teams try to hard-code a response to the first task, but give up or run out of time before they automate the 2nd or 3rd task. That is really a shame because shooting an object at a target is generally the last task, the coolest task and the one most likely to get a student interested in programming.
  • Too hard: Although the autonomous portion rewards some bonus points, it would need a ridiculous amount to make the reward large enough to justify the risk. 15 seconds is too short, there are too many unknowns (5 other moving robots!), and getting the robots to do tasks that human drivers find difficult is well... REALLY difficult.

I would suggest the following:

  • Make the autonomous portion a solo event with a longer time limit. Teams will report to a smaller area when they are not on deck for the main event. At this smaller area they will earn points that are somehow fused with their scores from the main event.
  • Keep the best out of three attempts. This increases the expected value of the autonomous portion, and limits the risk. Overall it makes programming a much more attractive way for students to spend their time during build season.
  • Decompose the autonomous portion into a handful of tasks that are related to the main event. Each task can be completed separately for points, with more points awarded for doing them all in one go without any human intervention. For example: identifying and picking up a ball of the correct color could be 3 points, driving to a goal and facing it from a random start position could be 5 points, and scoring a goal could be 5 points, with a bonus of 3 points for each task done in a row without human interaction.

Certainly the details of this idea could be improved. However, it is a strong starting point because it improves FIRST without adding too much procedure or cost, it allows students to focus on what they find rewarding, and it more closely reflects what robotics actually entails.