Team welcomes technical, coding, grant writing, joystick expertise — and 8th graders, too
The 15-member Tewksbury Titans FRC Team 1474 is well into the process of building a robot to compete in the 2023 FIRST Robotics game, Charged Up.
Above, l-r: Donovan Conway, Jared Woodman, David Penney, Liam Mullins, Corvid Dewilde, Pouriya Mehrabani
This year’s challenge: In six weeks, build from scratch a robot that can pick up both small traffic cones and 9.5-inch square inflatable fabric cubes, one at a time, 27 game pieces in all, then carry the items across a 26 foot by 54 foot carpeted field — while fending off interference from other robots — and place the cubes on shelves of varying heights and the cones on poles.
A match lasts two minutes and 30 seconds. In the first 15 seconds, the robot operates entirely autonomously, as directed by the team’s software. At the 15-second mark, the team’s human driver uses a pair of gaming joysticks to control the robot and continue scoring.
Tewksbury has participated in FIRST robotics for more than 15 years, and the challenges change annually. Students from all over the world compete, with one of the top teams coming from Israel. Massachusetts fields about 90 teams.
FIRST, which stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” is a global nonprofit that works to advance STEM education in schools. It was founded in 1989 by Segway inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen and has its headquarters in Manchester, NH. Beyond the robotics competition, the nonprofit provides educational resources and programs for students of all ages, such as the LEGO League Challenge aimed at 9-to-14 year olds.
Tewksbury eighth graders can join the TMHS Titans FRC Team.
But the focus isn’t just on engineering, fabrication, electrical and coding. FRC teams also have opportunities for marketers who can create business plans and help with PR and social media communications, and esports participants who could help drive the robot during competition.
Titans member Donovan Conway provided a tour of the Titans’ lab in TMHS and explained how the first match, scheduled for the coming weekend, will run.
“You work with two other teams in the FRC to create an Alliance,” said Conway. “Those can change every time. And even though there’s three teams, each team’s robot has to do the same task.”
When an Alliance gets any combination of three cubes or cones in a row on their grid, points are scored. Each team is also scored individually. The maximum allowable size of the robot is 6 ft. 6 in. tall and 130 pounds, and there are a number of parameters to ensure safety. Still, while not “combat robotics,” a robot may use its bumpers to block or pin other bots trying to complete challenges, similar to defense in basketball. So there is a strategic angle as well as the mechanical challenges.
The team will attend competitions held in March at Bridgewater-Raynham Regional High School and the University of New Hampshire, among other competitions later in the season. The team’s calendar is here. Robotics competitions are open to spectators.
From the Ground Up
The first step is design, often coupled with prototyping. Designs are then rendered into CAD to direct the fabrication and into specification documents to direct the coding and wiring.
Then, the build begins, with metal fabrication, software development and testing, and social media efforts running in parallel.
In larger teams, members might specialize. Some teams have as many as 60 students. The TMHS Titans have about 15 members, so everyone helps out in mechanical, electrical and programming.
“Your freshman year, you may not major in one thing,” said Conway. “But slowly, over time, as you can kind of see here, eventually you should be able to do everything.”
Programming is a huge part of a team’s success. The robot runs on Java, and Liam Mullins is the lead coder for the club.
“The code has definitely been improving throughout the years,” said Mullins. “This year, we’re hoping to do really advanced self-driving.”
Victor Impink, who mentors the software team, says code doesn’t need to be written from scratch.
“FIRST provides a software library that lets the students focus on what they want the robot to do, and not the subtle details of controlling devices on the robot,” said Impink. “I try to facilitate their work and stimulate their thinking, but keep my hands off the keyboard.”
During the season, which runs January through June, students might put in 20 hours per week, including matches.
Former Titans team members have gone on to attend schools including MIT, Northeastern, Penn State, RPI, UMass Lowell and WPI. One attended Boston University for communications. While with the Titans, he worked on newsletters, social media and videos.
The School Committee voted to allocate $5,000 to the Titans to offset the annual budget of about $25,000. If the team makes it to the world competition, that is an additional expense.
Sponsors including Analog Devices, Holt & Bugbee, iRobot, PTC, Teradyne and Tokyo Electron help with funding and materials, from lumber to semiconductors and software. The team has also received tools, including a milling machine, saws and a variety of 3D printers.
Mentor Scott Morris, an engineer with iRobot who’s been involved with the program since the beginning, says support from the school, community and parents is key to success.
“We got the Bridgeport machine from Grainger as a donation,” said Morris. “Last year, we got the drill press from Disney. We got the big saw from the PAC, so that was kind of awesome.”
More resources would help the team get additional laptops, for example. Other wish-list items include software for social media as well as tooling for metal and newly started plastic fabrication. A water jet would be a huge advantage, as would more space.
From large companies to local businesses to residents, the team welcomes technical, coding, grant writing and other expertise as well.
“Everyone just thinks it’s robots — building and programming,” said Morris. “But I would love to have more dedicated social media people, project management people. There is a whole component to this event that is business. You can go to a competition and do one of two things: Put your robot on the field and win. Or, put your presentation team on the field, and do your Chairman’s pitch.”
The Chairman’s Award, now called the FIRST Impact Award, is given to a team that presents an essay describing the success of team members, initiatives to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders and innovators, partnerships created, areas identified for improvement and a plan to get there and other criteria.
“If you win the Chairman’s Award for the event, you go to World Championship,” he said. “So you could build no robot, you could just show up, similar to DECA, with your business plan, and you can win the event.”
Morris says to watch for the Titans in the community at police events, like the Bike Rodeo and Safe Halloween. The group has done demos for the Select Board and School Committee. He’s also available to do talks on 3D printing and robotics, but says the focus is on empowering team members to learn.
“As mentors, we really kind of pride ourselves on not building the robot,” said Morris. “We’re really here to guide the kids.”