The winning team

Pennsylvania Students Set New Robotics Record

The FIRST competition is a place where every student can go pro.

Most high school teams would define success by how they are measured against region, state, and perhaps even national competition. Students competing from a Pennsylvania robotics team established a much higher bar, setting four world records while constantly improving its machine to hold off the challenges posed by other young, bright minds from all over the globe.

The Giant Diencephalic BrainSTEM team, based near Pittsburgh, competed in the FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC), which runs for most of the school year. The 10-member team includes students in grades 9 through 12 from several schools. Seven students in grades 4 through 8 also supported the team, which set its first world record in a tournament in Ohio in December. The team subsequently set three more world records, won the Ohio state championship, and qualified for the FTC World Championship.

Dean Kamen, an American engineer who is best known as inventor of the Segway, founded the FIRST competition in 1989. Teams are required to design, build, program, and operate robots to compete against units designed by other teams. The students develop STEM skills and practice engineering principles, and Kamen designed the event to mirror sports competitions. “The robots are just a vehicle,’’ Kamen said in an interview with CNN in 2011. “We take everything from the playbook of sports, and we transfer it. Except the game they’re playing has content that matters to life. The superstars they’re meeting are the kinds of people we want our kids to aspire to be like.”

Teams design their robots after FIRST releases a video in September that identifies the challenges. In this year’s event, “Relic Recovery,” robots collected and scored “glyphs” (foam cubes) in various patterns, retrieved “jewels,” transferred “relics,” parked on balancing “stones,” and navigated a playing field—all autonomously.

James Walton, a senior and the team captain, said the team started building its robot after seeing the video from FIRST Tech. Their unit includes spinning collectors, elevating depositing-platforms and robotic arms built on a fast-moving and omni-directional drivetrain. 

“It took about two months to get a basic working design,” Walton said. Students worked together, primarily on weekends, for as many as 40 hours a week in the early stages to design their robot. They balanced academics and other activities while building, evaluating, and fine-tuning their robot. After competitions, the team would return home and continue to tweak its machine. “After every competition, we’d come back and make changes to our robot and try to improve it,” Walton said. “We put the time in to make it work consistently.”

The team designed its drivetrain after it traveled to a competition site to discover the “field” on which it would be competing. The students then sorted out ideas for the drivetrain and how their unit could best navigate the field. “We used a CAD model to determine what we could do for the drivetrain,” Walton said. “We wanted something that was custom-designed.” They built a swift-moving, omni-directional mecanum unit to negotiate the field.

In the next design step, the team built a floor for the drivetrain, and added two vertical walls and a u-shaped panel in the middle of the robot for depositing the cubes and jewels. The team then built lifts for the cubes, the collector, the storage system, and tilts.

Different team members worked independently on each segment of the robot and shared their information through a master file. After designing the robot, the team fabricated the parts, laser -ut and milled components, wired the robot, and lined up the cables. Walton said the team mechanically tweaked each part to make the intake method as fast as possible. The team also custom designed each part, forsaking kits that are used by many of the teams. “It’s more challenging with custom designs, but it was worth it,’’ Walton said. “When you custom-make everything, it allows you more flexibility in the design.”

Walton said previous experience with computer-assisted design technology also helped his team. The team designed a robot for competition last year with computer assistance and used that experience to help them with this year’s model. “It was still a ton of work, but it took a little less time because we were more experienced with computer-assisted design,” he said. “It’s probably one of the things that helped us a lot.”

The team’s primary mechanical challenge came in designing a system to collect and store the “glyphs” and “jewels.” The team solved the confounding collection issue with low-profile, self-lubricating linear glides. The unit includes five miniature glides, which are manufactured by igus. The guides are small, compact, and adjustable. The guide systems are manufactured with igus’ engineered plastics, and are used in industrial applications.

“We spent a lot of time figuring out the most efficient collecting system, storing them, depositing them, and figuring out how to best orient them and collect them,” Walton said. “We wanted to get them perfectly oriented on the way in. That was the most difficult part.”

The most important benefits to the miniature glides were the light weight and self-lubricating properties. The 9-millimeter rail guide used in the robot weighs just .11 kg/m and the carriage weighs just 17 grams. They also did not have to lubricate the robot after each competition or practice—the team specifically used DryLin, which doesn’t require lubrication.

Gordon Walton, a semi-retired research and development specialist introduced the team to the linear glides. He is the team’s mentor and James’ father. “The alternatives are big, steel drawer glides that are heavy, awkward and get dust inside them,’’ James Walton said. “The non-lubricated glide is extremely smooth, sturdy, and consistent. And really, really fast.”

The competition started by Kamen has evolved into a huge enterprise. In the inaugural robotics competition in 1992, 28 teams competed in the gymnasium of a New Hampshire high school. This year the FIRST Tech Challenge featured 5,358 teams from 10 countries. However, this is only one competition. FIRST has multiple competitions across all grade levels representing approximately 59,000 teams and 515,000 students in total.  The competitions include district, state, and regional events, and students have access to millions of dollars of scholarships. Students can support teams with administration, fundraising, community outreach, and technical advising.

“We bring together all the trappings that make kids love sports, but we help each other,’’ Kamen said in the CNN interview. “Unlike other sports, where all you do is get points, which don’t have value, we need every kid to get smart. FIRST is the only sport where every kid, on every team, can turn pro.”

Some of the world’s largest technological companies support the competition. This year’s sponsors for FIRST championship events include Qualcomm, Google, Magna International, Delta Air Lines, FedEx, Ford, General Motors, and dozens of other high-tech companies. There are two championship sites, in Detroit and Houston, and the events are estimated to have a collective economic impact of $30 million to the host cities.

Students on the Pennsylvania team are alumni of the FIRST LEGO League robotics competition, a program that they now help run in Western Pennsylvania with their non-profit sponsor, BrainSTEM Learning, Inc. The team also compares designs to other teams. “Sometimes I’m just a spectator,’’ James Walton said. “I’ll see what other teams are doing, and some slides are really bulky. I think about how much heavier their robot is compared to our robot.”

When the team is not tinkering with the unit, Walton practices driving it in the basement of his home. “I’m the designated driver during competitions,’’ he said. “I go into the basement and practice driving it whenever I want.”

At competitions, other teams frequently watch in awe at the speed, handling, and design of the Pennsylvania team’s record-setting robot. “It’s pretty neat when we see other teams checking out what we’re doing,’’ James said. “It gives you a reason to do it.”

Thomas Renner is an award-winning journalist based in Connecticut. He writes frequently on manufacturing, building trades and other topics for national and international publications.

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