Robotics Team Competes at SuperRegionals

14 April, 2016   |     |   Academic Programs, Faculty, News, Robotics, STREAM

Above: 2856 Tesseract with Patrick atop GitHub’s building in San Francisco.

Written by Gabe Cronin, Upper School Chemistry Teacher and Robotics Club Advisor

April 14, 2016 – “Life  is like a box of chocolates…you never know what you’re going to get…” Memorable movie phrases stick with us because they capture reality in a short sound bite. Recently the robotics team 2856, Tesseract, from Seattle Academy, experienced a series of high and lows at the West Coast FIRST Tech Challenge Superregional in California which reminded me of that quote from Forrest Gump.

We flew out of Seattle on Wednesday afternoon, arriving and taking public transit just as the sun set. We stayed at the beautiful Marriott Hotel in downtown Oakland. Thursday’s morning took us to visit Github, in the South Beach area of San Francisco southwest of Market Street near the base of the Bay Bridge. We enjoyed a glorious stroll along the Bay, basking in the sunlight. The visit was setup by SAAS science teacher and robotics mentor Gerald Elliot, who is high school friends with Patrick Dunham ‘99, an alumni of Seattle Academy and a communications facilitator at Github.

Patrick gave us a tour of the facilities, including a mock-up of the oval office and his personal office which is up in a “bird’s nest” from which he coordinates joint meetings with people from all over the country. Patrick also served as a mock judge for a practice round of judging, which can be seen here:

Overall, the visit looked good from the outside, tasted just as good, and left us pleasantly filled.

Thursday afternoon’s experience was challenging. In order to compete, robots must pass through an inspection, which consists of ensuring it is safe, uses only allowed components, and fits several arbitrary rules including a size constraint. SAAS does have a “sizing box,” a precision container with inner dimensions of 18” cubed. We had preemptively conducted a mock inspection of Mark 2 (their robot), and the students believed that it fit into the cube. However, at inspection, it became clear that their definition of “fitting” and the inspector’s definition were at odds. The official rules state that if any part of the robot exerts a force against the wall of the sizing cube, then the robot fails inspection. Alas, our robot used flexible plastic paddles which pressed gently against the walls, and other parts were equally questionable. The inspection process therefore went something like this:

Inspector:  Can you remove (insert piece of robot here) so you can fit into the sizing cube?
2856: No, if we remove that part our robot will not function well.

An hour and a half later, the team took a break from the inspection anxieties to go to judging. Their pre-prepared portion went quite well, and the team was feeling confident. Then came two questions… the first on Gracious Professionalism, and the second on which members do computer coding. The team felt that the judges were looking for specific answers, which they did not give. They were slightly disheartened.

Back to inspection… and three hours after they started, Mark 2 had made it into the box with the removal of a “block guard,” an essential piece designed to keep small cubic blocks on the field from getting underneath the robot where they would cause chaos for the drivetrain. 2856 remounted the guard plate to make it slightly more compact, and we were through inspection!!!! We walked away frazzled and emotionally spent but internally thrilled and relieved that we were through the first hurdles of the competition. We celebrated by going to Battabang, a Cambodian restaurant.

At 7 AM on Friday morning the pits opened, and we were up bright and early to claim our pit space and decorate it with all manner of signs, banners, lights, 3D printed and laser cut trinkets, business cards, and robot description brochures, all designed to say “Look at Us!  We are an awesome robotics team!” Watching the pit develop over the morning was fun… it was like a chocolate where each bite is a new surprise, one better than the next.

While 2856 is clearly a team, individual credit is due in the case of the pits. Robert Winton ’17 and Arielle Isaacs ’17 designed the pit concept. Math teacher and mentor Willy Felton came up with the amazing idea to make two hundred origami paper tesseracts which we placed onto light strings to honor the four-dimensional cube that is our namesake. Math teacher and mentor Ellie Wolf kept the team on task and ensured the high quality of all the pit components. We also thank SAAS Athletics for the use of their tent.

Meanwhile, the robot had gotten a wonderful night’s sleep and was ready for action.

We received our match schedule Friday morning, which showed that we would play a total of nine matches over the next day and a half. During those matches, we would accrue Qualifying Points (two per win, one per tie, zero per loss), and Ranking Points (the points of the LOSING alliance). We would also be randomly paired with teams, and randomly placed against an opposing alliance of two teams. No little value can be assigned to the alliances you get… sometimes you luck out and other times you are less fortunate.

A little background…a match is 2:30 minutes, with thirty seconds dedicated to execution of a preprogrammed set of commands (called autonomous or auto), and the remaining two minutes for driver controlled mode (called teleoperated or teleop). Auto is much harder than teleop. After the qualifying matches, teams are selected for alliances based on factors including how well they have played, how well they have branded themselves, luck, and prior name recognition. We were well aware of the fact that the best teams would be looking around and evaluating other teams based on their performance.

Our first match was a resounding win. We were paired up with an Los Angeles team (Bomb Squad, 9804) which could score blocks in the highest goal, and we complemented that strategy by being able to score in the middle goal and having a strong endgame (the last thirty seconds of the teleop allows for a new set of scoring strategies to be used).

Match two looked like it was going to be a resounding win. In fact, with our alliance partner (Vulcan, 8375), we executed one of only two successful double climber scores, earning forty-five points in autonomous. Pretty impressive! And then…in teleop the left tread fell off. If you’ve seen any war movies which involve tanks (Saving Private Ryan comes to mind), you know that once a tank has lost one tread, it is dead in the water. Remember how I said alliances were important? Turns out we were paired with the eventual winner of the whole tournament. So while we did next to nothing, Vulcan dominated, and the blue alliance came out on top.

The remaining matches on Friday were a blur to me. We had bad moments…our tank treads fell off a second time, the drive team failed to secure the connection to the battery well enough and so the battery came loose when we were bumped by another team in autonomous…our autonomous failed to work because a zip tie was rotated incorrectly. We had good moments…we single handedly won match 35 even though our alliance partner shut down completely due to electrostatic discharge (ESD, which tends to temporarily cripple electronic control systems). Our last match was also very strong…we executed a working autonomous, two block trips, two zip-line climbers, and a hang. By the end of the day, however, we had dropped in the standings and were feeling a bit frustrated. The robot was not responding with the confidence and reliability we had seen back in the STREAM basement. Fashion sense also suffered as clothes became dirty.

We stepped away temporarily to check out the Oakland scene. After a twenty minute walk north we arrived at a trendy pizza joint, which had a two-hour wait. Scratch that! Yelp and some intrepid phone calls brought us to a cute little Cuban restaurant called Cuba Libre, which served up outstanding Cuban rice, pork, plantains, and vegetables. Shortly thereafter, we walked along Lake Merritt to the Oakland Museum of California for thirty minutes of exhibit perusal before they closed.

Everyone knew that Saturday was going to be an intense day. We had three matches to play, and we had a lot of redeeming to do. We wanted to raise our level in the standings and to perform consistently and with enough audacity to secure a “pick” on one of the alliances in the playoffs. By this point it was unlikely that we would be in a position of picking. In the first match we were paired up with Hot Wired, the team which won the World Championship (in St. Louis) two years ago. It was a strong win.  We played consistently strongly in the three qualification matches on Saturday…autonomous worked once, our block collecting and dispensing system allowed us to make two trips to the middle goal while scoring the lower two zip liners, and we hung each match and got the all-clear at least once. Although we played well in the remaining two matches, they did not go our way, and we ended up in sixteenth place at the end of qualifying matches. The eighth match was lost 222 to 278, and we could have won that match. We really needed to win the ninth match, and then our robot shut down when another robot touched it (this happens when static electricity builds on a robot and it discharges on contact with another robot).

Prior to alliance selection, Willy took the team aside and gave them a pep talk. He pointed out that they were already winners at this point and didn’t need to advance or win awards to be proud of what they had accomplished. Of course we all wanted to win, but the talk reminded us of how far we had come since the Washington state competition, where ESD crippled our robot.

Alliance selection is nerve wracking. There are essentially eight spots which are free; the top four teams chose two other teams each to make four alliances of three teams. Then the first seeded alliance plays the fourth seeded, and the second plays the third in best of three match elimination brackets. Needless to say, if you are seeded sixteenth, you are outside of the logical choices (which would be the top 12 teams). However, FTC includes elements of luck and branding. Hence, there was always a chance that we could be selected. And Saturday was to be our day. C4, the third seeded alliance, was a young team and our branding and game play on Saturday must have been influential enough to secure our selection. We were the eleventh picked team, on an alliance with C4 and Robominers.

Our third seeded alliance was pitted against the second seeded alliance, which was STRONG. RoBowties, Batteries in Black, and Schrodinger’s Hat all had working autonomous programs, could score blocks in the high goal, and could hang.  Robominers, on our alliance, matched up well against any of those, but C4 was weaker, and we were a wild card. If Mark 2 performed to its maximum potential, we might have a shot.

C4 strategically chose to sit out the first match. We knew that our alliance would be better when they were out, and we wanted a strong start. And we got one. Tesseract performed admirably, running a blocking autonomous to prevent interference as Robominers scored the climbers. Then we made two full trips to the middle goal, hung, and scored the all-clear in the end game. Robominers matched RoBowties with several trips to the high goal, and Batteries in Black shut down with an ESD problem.  We won the first match handedly, 461 to 323.

Match two was a relative rout in the other direction. C4 had no capability to score blocks, and while they played defense, ultimately our alliance was crippled. So the semifinals all came down to the third match.

Batteries in Black sat out, fearing a recurrence of their ESD issue. This time we were up against two working robots. Each robot and drive team executed its normal strategy, and Tesseract again performed admirably. The announcers kept us waiting for nearly ten minutes before announcing the results of the third match, and WE WON by 5 POINTS. The SAAS crowd’s reaction is priceless:

The finals were equally competitive. The first seeded alliance was very similar to the second seeded alliance. The first seeded alliance consisted of Vulcan Robotics (8375), Hot Wired Robotics (7013), and Bomb Squad  (9804). We again put Tesseract and Robominers in to face off against Vulcan and Hot Wired. The first match was epically close…and this time our luck ran out. We lost 426 to 425. In this game, any number of tiny changes would have meant a win for us and a chance to go to a “winner takes all” third match. Instead, we were crushed in the second match as C4 had to field their robot.

The weekend was epic. SAAS Robotics has never advanced to the playoffs at SuperRegionals, let alone upset an alliance in the semifinals and almost knock off the eventual winner in the finals of the Silicon division. Special credit is due to the drive team (Isaac Zinda ‘16, Wilson Rawlings ‘17, and Samin Zachariah ‘18) who showed us their best under the intense pressure of the playoffs. The robot Mark 2 deserves the most credit…it is the result of ten stellar young minds, countless hours of thought and work, the support of Seattle Academy, Pacific Metal Fabricators, the outstanding robotics parent group, and our four dedicated mentors.

At SAAS we talk about students having a “moment of action” where their prior training and experiences allow them to act at a critical juncture and take a big step forward in their growth. Robots are obviously less sentient than humans, but it is almost as if Mark 2 had a moment of action in the semifinals and finals of Superregionals.

We did not earn any awards or even nominations at Superregionals (to the great consternation of many team members who had assembled a stellar Engineering Notebook), and although we finished the competition in the finals of our division, the performance advancement criteria were weighted towards consistency over both days rather than final performance.  Hence we did not advance to the FIRST World’s Championship this year.  Still, we are exceedingly proud of our performance and looking forward to next year’s competition.

Below (left-to-right): Back row Armon Fardad ’16, Robert Wilson ’17, Matt Kelsey ’18, Shanti Borling ’16, Wilson Rawlings ’17, Samin Zachariah ’18.  Second Row:  Isaac Zinda ’16, Mark 2, Alex Jordan ’16.  First Row:  Peter Crites ’18, Arielle Isaacs ‘17
robotics team