“I’m so incredibly proud of RobotX this 2021 season! While the finish line is not yet upon us, we’ve met a major milestone by submitting our entry into this year’s competition.
On average, we’ve had 25 students (peak of 32, with 38 on our roster) and 10 adult mentors working with huge dedication over the last eight weeks. We’ve met every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday evening from 6:30-8:30 p.m., and every Saturday from 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, we’ve met all of these extra 14 hours per week on Zoom. We’ve observed some interesting things about our students, including that, despite this being an entirely optional activity, so many of them have dedicated themselves to the endeavor, as real as Zoom fatigue is. In fact, many of the students spent dozens of additional hours asynchronously to meet deadlines.
In most years, FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) teams work frantically between the first Saturday in January (when that year’s game is revealed) until their chosen Regional Competition (a multi-week series of worldwide events) between early-March and mid-April. Winners of Regional Competitions go on to the World Championships in mid-April.
On that kickoff day, a professional game animation created by FIRST is revealed which helps teams visualize the game, its unique field elements, and game objects, as well as the various tasks the robots must perform. Teams must design and build a robot to perform those tasks to operate within the parameters carefully defined in the Game Manual.
Since the 2020 season was cut short and ultimately cancelled in March, many teams, including RobotX, did not have the opportunity to use their robots in competition. This left many disappointed students with an unsatisfying ending to thousands of hours of intense work.
In acknowledgement of the COVID-19 pandemic, FIRST developed three at-home challenges that teams could choose to participate in for the 2021 season:
- Infinite Recharge at Home (a skills-challenge for the 2020 robot)
- Innovation Challenge (whereby teams identify an opportunity and design a solution to help people maintain optimal physical or mental health through play or movement),
- Game Design Challenge (where teams have the opportunity to design an FRC game to compete for the privilege of pitching the game to the FRC Game Design Team, who selects winning teams who may have their game featured in a future season).
RobotX chose to bifurcate and tackle the Infinite Recharge at Home (IRH) with a smaller subset of the team while the bulk of the team pursued the Game Design Challenge (GDC).
The IRH team continued where we left off in the 2020 season, working to enhance the mechanically completed robot by perfecting a home-grown vision system to identify and collect yellow dodgeballs (known in-game as fuel cells) and aim them for launch into a hexagonal target (known as a power port). As the team was somewhat finance-constrained and with the typical KLS can-do attitude, Abhi V. worked last year with mentor Vivek Kwatra (dad to Ishansh in IL6 & Vidit in IL3) built the customized system from scratch using Python and the OpenCV library.
Abhi mentored other students as he learned the craft himself and continued doing so this year. Meanwhile, Parth I. and Robert B. mentored other students to program the robot to be able to perform “re-play” actions — to record remote-controlled actions to repeat autonomously at a later time. Together, these two efforts combined could theoretically allow the robot to perform the at-home skills challenge.
Unfortunately, the team hit a snag as we approached the submission deadline: while the robot was able to reliably identify one fuel cell and pick it up, the subsequent fuel cells were much less reliably collected. After many hours of tweaking, the team made the mature decision to pivot and re-set expectations of what we could actually submit for the judged awards. This allowed us a few extra weeks to continue trying to troubleshoot the system for the autonomous tasks, whose submission is still a few weeks away. Kudos to the IRH team for their maturity in pursuing a somewhat disappointing but appropriate goal. A “robot flyer” describing various aspects of the robot and design considerations was submitted with photos of the 2020 Robot.
A yet-to-be-scheduled 15-minute interview with FRC judges will be the opportunity for the IRH team to convince judges that our robot, dubbed “Pythagorean Cannon”, is worthy of one of the judged awards.
The GDC team, led by Eric C. and Nunu Z., began by brainstorming various game concepts and over time settled on a search-and-rescue style game with several mechanics never before seen in FRC games. Many hours were spent debating and developing numerous intricacies including physical constraints, bonus actions, game balancing, and even in-story morality. In the end, RobotX submitted a very thoroughly developed FRC game: FIRST Responders.
Among the several submission requirements was an optional video, which some of the team assumed would be some sort of stop-motion or other relatively technically simple video. However, upon seeing a field animation that former IRH team-member Shira S. “just threw together,” it became clear that Shira could lead a team of students to model and animate a video in the style of FIRST’s professional game animations. This animation team learned to use Blender, an open-source 3D modeling and animation software package, to produce the very impressive piece. Teams were tasked to story-board the two-minute video and write a script for the voice-over while others worked to define and refine the game.
The music for the animation video was composed by Ishansh K. and produced by Sophia D., who worked with Nunu Z. to edit the video together. Meanwhile, once many of the game’s physical aspects were decided, a group of students worked on algorithmic modeling while another group built the game field in Minecraft for playtesting. Both of these techniques helped the team to make refinements that corrected the balance of the game.
The major milestone the team reached on Thursday, March 4, was to turn in a submission package, consisting of a Game Overview, field image, descriptions of notable field elements, expected robot actions, the game animation video, as well as a supplemental document that the team used to highlight the unique game features, rules, and even the morality in game design.
View the Submission Package:
Upcoming is a to-be-scheduled 15-minute interview with FRC judges which includes a 7-minute presentation and 5-minute Q&A session (with a requisite 3-minute buffer for COVID-era technical challenges). Our students will have the opportunity to convince the judges that FIRST Responders is a game worthy of consideration for future play by the FRC community. Should we be selected to move forward, additional rounds of judging will occur.
This is only RobotX’s fourth year, and we’ve accomplished quite a bit in our short history. In our first year, we earned the Highest Rookie Seed award at the San Francisco Regional, and the following year, we earned the Team Spirit award. Our third year was sadly cut short by the COVID pandemic. FRC is designed for high schoolers (9 - 12 graders), but since KLS is so small and mixed-age learning is a key tenet of the school, we invite KLS Middle Schoolers to participate. As such, not only is RobotX young in its existence, we have a disproportionate number of younger students as well. At competition, we’ve overhead others whispering “that’s a really small freshman.”
This year’s GDC opportunity, of course, has been one where KLS students can shine. Teams with 20+ years of deep experience don’t necessarily have a significant technological and skills advantage over our relatively young team. KLS also fosters possibilities-thinking as well as interdisciplinary projects in many aspects of learning. As such, RobotX has been unusually well-equipped to tackle this Game Design Challenge, bringing in logic, ethics, physics, mathematics, English, and art principles—all in a neat showcase of KLS students in their element.
I’m so incredibly proud of what this group of students has accomplished over these past 8 weeks and am excited to see how we stack up against the other teams’ entries.”
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