Teaching engineering from scratch through the FIRST Robotics Competition

December 15, 2015

In September I talked with FIRST and Qualcomm about their use of the Snapdragon 410 processor-powered Android platform used in the FIRST Tech Challeng...

In September I talked with FIRST and Qualcomm about their use of the Snapdragon 410 processor-powered Android platform used in the FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) robotics kits. In the highest division of FIRST competitions, the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC), groups of high school students start nearly from scratch to design and build custom robots. Team mentor Mark Littlefield discusses how FRC competitors learn skills beyond robot building to make them the cream of the engineering crop when they start their careers. (Lead image source)


What is the FIRST Robotics Competition?

FRC is a competitive robotics organization for high schoolers. It is the top tier of the FIRST Robotics programs, with students designing and building custom competitive robots over a six-week period. Each year there is a unique game with a number of challenges that the students must analyze, derive requirements, then design, build, and test their robot for.

While an FRC team gets a common kit of parts from the organization each year, it is not a “build your own robot kit” with instructions and such. It is only common materials such as the control system components, a few motors and motor controllers, some sensors and switches, and various other bits and pieces common for building a robot. The team must acquire or fabricate the rest of what they need to build their robot. Each robot is, therefore, truly unique.

While the building of the robot and the competitions are the primary activities, they are not the goal of FRC. The actual goal is to introduce students into the world of engineering and to prepare them for being the next-generation engineering “rock stars.” We use good engineering practice (like formal requirement and design reviews before bending metal) and organized sub-teams that give the students a taste of the “real world” of professional engineering. The education of the students and their development as leaders are our real goal. We are regularly told that FRC alumni taking their first position out of university are far better prepared for a production engineering organization than their non-FRC colleagues.

What does it take to start a FRC team?

To start an FRC team one must have:

  • Students willing to learn and to put long hours into a project with intense schedule pressure
  • Adult mentors skilled in mechanical design, fabrication, electronics, programming, system engineering, and team leadership
  • A set of common hand and power tools, although access to more advanced tools such as CNC machines and 3D printers is very useful
  • A space to build and practice
  • An annual budget of $10,000 or more

FRC isn’t particularly cheap. Thus most teams (if not all) have corporate sponsors. For instance, our team (Team 980, the Thunderbots) is sponsored primarily by NASA JPL and Disney Imagineering (and a number of other smaller sponsors) and our budget is about $20,000 to $22,000 per year. That includes annual FRC costs (which includes the kit of parts and registration for one FRC regional competition), as well as build materials, insurance, Internet access, and various other operational costs. Our sponsors cover a little more than half – the students must fundraise each year to collect the rest. Travel costs also play into the equation – even more so if the team wins a regional and is invited to World Championships.


Figure 1: Team 980, the Thunderbots, at the 2015 Los Angeles Regional competition. (Source)
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There are some pretty heavy hitters involved in FIRST and FRC – Dean Kamen and Woody Flowers being the most visible – but many large corporations are heavily involved as well. For instance, besides our sponsors NASA JPL and Disney Imagineering, all of the big aerospace primes and car companies sponsor teams, AT&T is a big sponsor, and so is Comcast/NBC/Universal.

How does a FRC team get sponsors? How did your team land Disney Imagineering and NASA JPL?

Our lead mentor is a systems engineer at JPL, so (if I’m not mistaken) he brought NASA to our team. Disney Imagineering has been a sponsor since the early days of the team well before I joined, so I’m not sure how they were engaged. Other sponsors have joined as a result of their children having been on the team, or from attending one of our open house events. We also participate in community events to help keep our organizational face fresh in the community – which also has the benefit of helping to recruit new students.

However, securing and maintaining sponsors is a constant concern. FRC is expensive, costing a team like ours between $10,000 and $25,000 per year or more. Fundraising through bake sales and charitable contribution campaigns simply can’t reach those levels. As a result, our corporate sponsors are our lifeblood. Corporate sponsors benefit, however, by having their name attached to an impressive group of young people doing remarkable feats of engineering, and by helping to prepare our next generation of engineers and scientists.

Disney Imagineering provides your current workspace – what does the space include?

Disney provides us with a space of about 2,000 square feet divided into a general open area and a smaller room for a machine shop. It used to be a sound stage, so it has a good open area that is great for a general meeting space as well as a practice area. They had us in another building but they needed to renovate so they moved us to our current location. Disney has been very generous, both with financial support and with build space, and we are eternally grateful.

What perks do big sponsors like Disney Imagineering and NASA JPL provide?

This year Disney has decided to participate in FIRST in a big way. Not only do they support multiple teams, they are also working at the organizational level. I think that we’re going to see the impact of Disney on things like game design and marketing over the coming years. They also have periodic events for their teams like a screening of the film “Slingshot” about FIRST co-founder Dean Kaman’s efforts to develop a low-cost water purification system for poor communities.

JPL has been a steady supporter both financially and through providing world-class mentor resources. We also occasionally get surplus IT hardware from them. They also invite all of their teams to the JPL open house and provide some inperson tours that aren’t generally offered to the community.


Figure 2: A model of a rover at a NASA JPL open house in 2014. (Source)
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How and when did you get involved with the FIRST Robotics Competition?

I’m starting my third season as a mentor. I got involved because I was looking for some volunteer work to do and a colleague of mine on the east coast told me about his FRC team. I contacted the organization, which put me in touch with Team 980′s lead mentor. I was hooked from my first visit to the team.

For me it’s the learning aspect. To see students go from not knowing which end of a screwdriver to hold to doing complex CAD designs, fabricating and assembling from a plan, or programming the robot for autonomous operation is my real motivation. We also never have a student say, “I don’t want to do that, it’s too hard” – they are always willing to dive in and try things, and that’s very encouraging.

Who are the students in your group and what activities do they do?

FRC is for high school, grades 9-12 (typically 15-18 years old). Any student, no matter what experience they have, are welcome to attend. However, many teams are school-based, which means that only students from that school can join that team. Team 980 is a community team, which means that we draw from a number of schools across the western portion of the San Fernando Valley and the Pasadena/Glendale area (I think we have students from seven different high schools just now).

Teams range in size from six or eight students up to more than 100. There are even entire schools built around their FRC team who actually have tryouts to determine who makes the team (although teams like that are really the exception). Typically teams are in the 15-45-student range.

Each team has their own approach, but we at Team 980 are organized into four sub-teams:

  • Design
  • Fabrication
  • Controls
  • Business

Each has students who wish to participate in that particular activity, a student leader, and one or more mentors. I’ve talked about the first three, but the fourth is interesting. In addition to organizational and engineering practice aspects, there is an important emphasis on community outreach with FRC. To capture all this there is a sub-competition at each regional competition called Chairman’s Award. To enter that competition a team must:

  • Produce and submit a business plan
  • Write an essay describing why they should win a chairman’s award
  • Produce an annual team video
  • Create and pitch a 10-minute presentation to judges

Recruitment, fund raising, community outreach, and evangelizing FIRST values (for instance, Gracious Professionalism and Coopertition) are all key parts of this, and the business team is responsible for them all.

Lastly, students are not “stuck” in a sub-team year after year. Often our students jump to other teams so that they can experience everything that an FRC team has to offer, although we encourage them to stick with a particular team through the build and competition season.

What equipment/parts do students use and what skills do they use/learn?

A wide range of tools, depending on the task:

  • Design:
    • CAD tools like SolidWorks
  • Fabrication:
    • Common hand tools such as screwdrivers, wrenches, hex wrenches, etc.
    • Power tools such as hand drills and drill press, band saws, grinders, etc.
    • Sometimes more advanced tools such as CNC machines or routers
    • Plate aluminum, lexan sheet, various aluminum or steel rods or angle bars, and a ton of material called 80-20
    • Pneumatics – pump, tank, hoses, valves, etc.
    • Wheels, gears, pulleys, etc.
  • Controls:
    • Soldering irons and multimeters
    • Development and debug tools such as Eclipse
    • Programming languages such as C/C++ or Java
    • A wide range of motor controllers, cameras and other sensors such as infrared proximity sensors, and switches of various types. This year we are incorporating a 9 DoF IMU into our robot (3 accelerometers, 3 gyroscopes, and 3 magnetometers) – way cool!
  • Business:
    • Various tools like Word, PowerPoint, etc.
    • Video and audio production tools like Final Cut
    • Business practices – for instance, this year the students redefined our mission and vision statements and developed a Balanced Scorecard for the team

Basically, they are using world-class tools and learning how best to apply them.


Figure 3: Team 980 working on their robot at the 2014 Fall Classic competition. (Source)
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What’s your favorite robot features to have come out of your FRC team?

That’s a tough one as there have been so many in my relatively short time in FRC.

One of the first things I did for the team was to help them implement an automatic transmission. They had used a two-gear transmission for a number of seasons, but they always used an operator switch to shift from low to high and drove the motors “open loop,” that is, without any feedback measurement and control. I helped the students install encoders on the drive gearboxes and implement a simple shifting speed-based shift-point mechanism in their control code to automatically shift up and down depending on the speed of the robot.

We also implemented a speed-based PID controller to give the robot a much smoother driving experience for the robot (that is, the software takes the operator input as a “desired speed” and uses a PID controller to make the robot drive at that speed). Anyway, the automatic transmission was pretty cool, and it proved very effective in competition – especially over robots with a single gear mechanism.

What’s a competition typically like?

Absolutely frantic, but a ton of fun (especially for the students). The day before the competition we are making last-minute adjustments to the robot, and the next two days are filled with matches, repairs and adjustments, team scouting, answering questions from other teams and visitors, cheering on the other teams, and general socializing.


Figure 4: The 2015 Los Angeles Regional competition, held March 11-14, 2015 at Long Beach Arena. (Source)
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Figure 5: A close-up view of the competition arena. (Source)
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Figure 6: Members of Team 980 talk with other teams at the competition. (Source)
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In competition we have other roles for the students:

  • Pit boss
  • Battery manager
  • Scouting team
  • Q&A team (for other team scouts, judges, and visitors)
  • Drive team (usually two primary driving students and a human player, plus alternates for each)
  • General fabrications and control students for repairs and adjustments

We always have to do adjustments between matches (tighten everything up, perform general systems checks, etc) and almost always have repairs to do. Sometimes we have an hour between matches; sometimes it’s only minutes.


Figure 7: Team 980′s robot for the Los Angeles Regional competition. (Source)
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A short documentary by AT&T Uverse about the 2015 world championships gives a good sense of FRC competition.

What do your students end up going on to do after high school? What advantages do they have from participating in FRC for their future endeavors?

More than 95 percent of our students go to college or university, many with scholarships, with most studying engineering or the sciences. What really shines is when they enter their first job after school. From their FRC experience they know how engineering teams are formed and how good engineering practice is applied to projects (unlike their non-FRC colleagues). As a result, they can be effective almost immediately upon joining an organization. Employers are starting to recognize this and to look for FRC alumni in their hiring processes. The Team 980 students that have graduated are now doing things like building Formula 1 race engines, designing UAV control systems, or working on advanced aerospace projects for companies like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin.

Why should professional engineers volunteer to mentor with FIRST/FRC? What are the benefits for mentors and students?

FRC is the best engineering-focused organization for young people that I have ever come across. Every engineer who I’ve met who is either involved or is being introduced to FRC and our team says, “I wish they had this when I was a student.” For me while the competitions are fun, the true value is having the chance to mold young people and to help them gain the sense of excitement and fun that I have for engineering. That’s what keeps me lending my help to Team 980.

Does this interest you or sound like something your company would want to participate in or contribute to? See FIRST‘s ways to get involved.

Monique DeVoe, Managing Editor