Robot Engineers Turn Failure into Missouri Championship Bid

February 20, 2014


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MUS robotics engineers have learned a powerful lesson this competition season: If at first you don’t succeed, build a better robot. After a disappointing FIRST Tech Challenge contest in Mountain Home, AR, last December, they retooled and took their creation to St. Louis in January, coming away with the award for best programming and a second-place finish. That showing qualified them for the Missouri State FTC Championship March 1, where they will be the only team from Tennessee.

The Owls also demonstrated their robot at FedEx World Headquarters January 15 and attended a presentation on innovation by Mr. Dean Kamen, president of DEKA Research and Development Corporation, inventor of the Segway, and founder of the FIRST robotics competitions. During the presentation FedEx Chairman and CEO Fredrick W. Smith ’62 presented Kamen with a check for $100,000 for FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), designed to spur the kind of problem solving and creativity the MUS engineers have demonstrated.

“‘If you’re going through hell, keep going,’” Kamen said, quoting Winston Churchill. “You can laugh at that, but when you get to that dark place where nothing’s working, what do most people do? They lose their courage. They lose their nerve. They stop. You’ve got nothing to lose when nothing’s working. Don’t stop. Keep going.”

Kamen’s message resonated with the students, who were forced back to the design stage to prepare for their second competition. The 2013-14 FIRST Tech Challenge Game, which features both driver-controlled and autonomous-program functions, requires the robot to perform several tasks in competition with other robots, including picking up blocks and delivering them to goal areas, climbing a ramp, and hanging from a bar.

At the Mountain Home competition, “everything that could go wrong, did go wrong,” Mr. Lee Loden, instructor in physics, said. A wheel fell off, a motor failed to work, and the robot got pushed around on the playing field because it was smaller and lighter than other competitors.

The student engineers deliberately made the first robot compact so it could hang from a bar during competition and have another robot hang with it. However, they noticed that all the competing robots were the maximum size – 18 inches cubed before extending any appendage – so they made the second-phase robot larger and heavier.

“In between the two competitions we pretty much took apart the last chassis and made a whole new one,” Thomas Hayes, a junior, said.

The engineers also learned to be quick and efficient in making repairs because they only had 10 minutes between matches in the first contest. “In the second competition we had 30 minutes between each match, at least, so we were prepared for any sort of breakdown. We could repair it very quickly,” said junior Alex Creson.

At the FedEx event, which included robotics teams from several area schools, the students demonstrated the new-and-improved robot’s functions as well as their repair skills. After replacing a battery, seniors William Lamb and Sam Neyhart realized some wires had been crossed. With their hands in the metal guts of the robot, they tinkered with the wiring until they got it right.

“It’s a lot of trial and error,” Lamb said. “We always keep building from our mistakes. We’ve had problems with structural integrity, with parts falling off, wires disconnecting or short-circuiting. So we’ve learned to be very careful. Looking at the malfunctioning robot, he amends his statement. “Well … more careful.”

“We probably should have all the wires labeled,” Neyhart said.

As the students worked on the robot, Loden and fellow advisor, Mr. Phillip Stalls, instructor in math, watched from several yards away.

“From start to finish, this is the students’ project,” Loden said. “They’ve learned enough that they can take this thing apart and put it together.”

Stalls said the process of building and programming a robot teaches students that they can put their ideas into action and overcome obstacles. “It’s good to hit those walls because they learn the intricacies of how Part A fits with Part B, and they come up with incredible solutions, like this robot. A couple months ago it was just a bunch of pieces of metal, sheets of plastic, and a couple Legos, and now it’s capable of doing some amazing things. It fosters a lot of creativity.”

Neyhart said he has seen a lot of team growth over his two years in the program. “At first we had trouble with just the basics, getting everything to work and connect with the computer. But with that out of the way, we could focus more on building and programming the robot. It’s been a great experience.”

Juniors Zack Whicker and Jack Hirschman said team members have learned the importance of communication.

“Not everyone was there at the same time, so if we didn’t write down what we were doing, other students might come the next day and completely change what you worked on,” Whicker said. “It’s really important to communicate well.”

“Communication really helps speed up the process for building,” Hirschman said. “Consistently going to meetings also helps with the process.”

With their studies, sports and arts practices, and other activities, it has been a challenge for the students to make time for the extracurricular robot team.

“We just keep trying to squeeze it all in,” Hirschman said.

Next year, however, Hirschman and other students will have the option of a enrolling in a new curricular offering: Honors Robotics.


Students participating in the Upper School robotics program in 2013-14 include the following: Reed Barnes, Kameron Bradley, Darius Cowan, Alex Creson, Hunter Finney, Matthew Gayoso, Thomas Hayes, Grady Hecht, Samuel Hecht, Jack Henke, Jack Hirschman, Mahad Jamil, Andre Johnson, William Lamb, Sam Neyhart, Ethan Pretsch, Jack Richman, Callaway Rogers, Andy Sorensen, Jason Stein, Garret Sullivan, Tom Wells, Zack Whicker, Yunhua Zhao, Lin Zheng, and Ray Zhou.

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