Tuesday, January 25, 2011

FIRST Impressions: By Brian Burke, Project Engineer

I recently had the opportunity to observe and assist FIRST Robotics Competition team #3717 during a work session at Middle College High School.  Sure, I had some preconceived knowledge about what FIRST involved.  My employer Bishop-Wisecarver has been a sponsor of student teams for the past few years, and I even spent a few hours on the internet reading about the competitions and watching the videos.  Actually seeing the components and meeting student team members shed additional light on this amazing phenomenon.

The FIRST robots start out as a kit of parts.  These kits include a surprising array of components including electric motors, aluminum frames, electrical wires, batteries, fasteners, drive wheels, pneumatic system components, sophisticated electronics and computer software.  The kit includes just about everything you would need to get a basic robot moving.  The technology included in the robot kit was surprising.

I really did not expect to see the sophisticated control system in the robot kit.  Sure, I expected remote control electronics but I thought they would consist of typical radio control components.  Instead, the FIRST robots will be controlled using a Logitech joystick attached to a netbook.  Wireless control of the robot is handled thru netbook software using the integrated WiFi network to a D-Link wireless router on the robot itself.  The WiFi connections allow for the inclusion of a wireless webcam for live streaming video back to the netbook.  The robot can be driven beyond line of sight such as around walls and corners using the camera.  Additional electronic hardware included the compact RIO module, digital I/O module, digital sourcing module, relays, solenoid valve, speed controller, breakout boards, sensors, fuse panels, and circuit breakers.  All of the electronics are provided as components.  Complete wiring must be completed by the team from available wire diagram drawings. This isn’t the kind of remote control I’m used to seeing on model airplanes and cars.

Truly professional engineering level software is provided and utilized for the FIRST robots.  One student was working on full 3D models of the robot build using AutoCAD Inventor.  Another student was working on the control and feedback system in LabVIEW.  The introduction of theses tools and their real world applications is invaluable for students to experience.  

The real challenge for the student teams is to design and build the actuators and functional attachments to the robots. This task involves creative mechanisms and power transmission concepts.  I spent most of my time with team captain Brian Orr.  To effectively utilize their limited time, he had several small groups working on the various sections of their robot at the same time.  The goal for the day was to complete the design and fabrication of a pneumatic actuator which must extend then grab and release an inflated ring.  They had selected the pneumatic system with cylinder and solenoid control to act as their actuator.  The assembly would pull on a string to grab the inside diameter of the inflatable ring.  Testing of this system went very well during my visit.

It was clear that FIRST team #3717 is well on their way to creating a remarkable competition robot using industry quality components and software.  The experiences they gain during this process will apply directly to modern employment opportunities in many industries.  To everyone involved in the FIRST Robotics Competition, I salute you.

To watch the latest webisode from the Middle College High School about preparing for the FIRST competition, click here. To learn more about FIRST, click here to view their website.

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