By Krystin Nelligan
Team 3656, the Dexter Dreadbots, did a fabulous job at the FIRST Robotics World Championship in Detroit’s packed COBO Hall, placing 12th out of 68 teams in the event’s toughest division. Although the Dreadbots did great, they didn’t progress into the final rounds. The disappointed team unexpectedly had to pack up their robot early, but stubbornly kept a positive attitude, remembering an undeniably successful 2019 season.
April 24-27 saw Detroit host the 2019 FIRST Robotics Championship with 42,000 registered participants. In addition to the high school age teams competing in the FRC division (FIRST Robotics Competition), huge events were also held for younger students, including FIRST Tech Challenge (7-12 grade), FIRST Lego League (4-6 grade) and FIRST Lego League Jr. (K-3). As for the Dexter Dreadbots, they were competing in the premiere division against 408 of the top teams from across the globe. Participation in the FIRST Robotics organization has grown so much that a sister event had been held the previous week in Houston.
So how, you may ask, did the Dreadbots not get invited to the finals party since they have done so well this season? An explanation is in order.
The Dreadbots were randomly selected to be in the Curie Division, which was proven during the championships to be the toughest division this year. Curie’s No. 8th seed (after all qualifying matches) had an average of 2.9 ranking points while all the other divisions had 2.7 or lower. The 8th seed team was used to compare because that is the lowest position in which you are guaranteed entry in the final matches.
Although a few tenths of a point may seem minor, in FIRST competition, it is a huge difference! For example, if the Dreadbots had been placed in the Tesla Division, their 2.7 ranking points would have placed them 6th, rather than the 12th position within the Curie Division.
April 24 was the first day the teams were allowed into the COBO Center to set up their pits (a 12-foot square area where teams were allowed to keep their tools and repair their robots) and to run some practice matches to get a feel for the field and how big the event actually is. Recruiters and representatives from dozens of colleges and companies were there to speak to any team members they could.
There were 408 teams at the World competition (93 from Michigan alone) setting up their tools and equipment. The competition had a total of six divisions, each named after a famous scientist. The 68 teams in the Curie Division (named after a French-Polish physicist, Marie Curie) turned out to be some of the toughest in Detroit this year. The Dreadbots were placed in this division with some of the best teams in the world, all fighting for chance to be FIRST.
The Dreadbots went undefeated during their first day’s qualification matches, with a 5-0-0 record and a 10th seed ranking, although some luck was involved. A pre-match scramble to repair a failed communication cable didn’t hold, resulting in a rare and embarrassing failure to score even one point during the Dreadbot’s very first qualifying match. In this case, good fortune smiled on Dexter’s roboticists, and the randomly assigned teams on their alliance still pulled off a convincing win, despite a mostly paralyzed Dreadbot Mark IX, which kept Dexter from paying the price for a technical failure.
Fortunately, just enough motors were still in partial communication with the drive team to permit the drivers to lurch the Mark IX enough out of the way to permit their alliance mates to score sufficient end-game points to earn all teams on that alliance a very valuable 4th ranking point. The post-match failure analysis revealed that an over-tightened zip tie had accidentally pulled out a CAN (Controller Area Network) bus cable leaving only three of the robot’s eight motors able to communicate with the drive team: the left-front wheel, the lift, and the back stilts.
Christian Vaughan, one of the team’s co-captains, said: “[Our robot] worked really well for what we designed it to do, but in this competition the wear and tear really started to show.”
More securely repaired, the Dreadbots performed strongly for the rest of their matches that day.
The second day of qualifying matches found wins more elusive than during day one, but the Dreadbots valiantly battled through some tough competition, and held their ranking relatively constant at 12th with a 2-2-1 record for the day, and an excellent 7-2-1 overall qualifying record. In one of the matches, the Dreadbots had trouble with the end-game climbing task due to loose engagement between the rack and pinion on the climbing stilts. This was quickly repaired before the remaining matches. In qualification match 99, both of the alliances resulted in a score of 99 points ending in a tie.
Day three saw the Dreadbots sitting in a good spot and optimistic about finals play in the Curie Division. Their previous best performance in World competition back in 2013, was a 6-4-0 record for Division qualifying, and in which they served as a division alliance captain.
Sadly, this year their competition ended after qualifying play as the highest ranked team (12th) that failed to be picked to join the 32 teams that went on to finals play. The reason for this was that the alliance captains choose their teammates not solely based on the rank, but on how well each team performs overall and on each robot’s defensive and offensive capabilities. Since the Dreadbot Mark IX had a few noticeable failures including the hatch panel suction cups not working as well as they had earlier in the season, this made team 3656 less desirable than some of the other fine robots within the division.
The team’s Human Player, Abbie Van Noord, articulated: “A lot of the issues were human error, making us look unreliable.”
The Dreadbots were disappointed that they did not get to show off their robot’s skills in the finals play.
“There were 24 choices made where we were sitting at the threshold of the next team to be picked in order, ninth seed, but we weren’t picked,” Vaughan explained. “That was kind of shocking and a little depressing, but the flaws in the beginning of the competition really showed.”
After concluding the 2019 competitions, the Dreadbot team members are very much looking forward to next season. Mechanical Sub-Team Leader Spencer McMichael exclaimed: “As long as we don’t have another huge snowstorm, we will probably have enough time to get a robot perfected (for next year).”
Everyone within the Dreadbot organization is excited to see how next year goes, even the seniors who will be graduating. Andrew Merriman (one of the seniors), Electrical Sub-Team Leader and one of the team’s co-captains, expressed: “I think we will do pretty well next year with the people we’ve got. I trust the seniors have passed down their knowledge well enough and with the mentors keeping them in line, we will do either pretty close or even better than what we did this year.”
One reason team members are looking forward to their 10th season has to do with less commuting! After nine years of wandering through the wilderness, the Dreadbots are delighted to report that they now have a permanent build space on the campus of Dexter Community Schools. Previous build spaces used by the Dreadbots (used for manufacturing and testing the robot, as well as team meetings) have been located in garages, rented commercial space, generously donated commercial high bay space, borrowed conference rooms, and once, even a basement, scattered throughout Washtenaw County.
With much hard work by both the Dreadbots and the Dexter Community Schools administration, the Dreadbot team now has access to nearly 1,000 square feet of high bay build space, and are happily moving in their machinery and equipment in anticipation of another fine year of roboting in 2020 and beyond.
In yet more exciting news, the Dexter Dreadbots would like to announce the formation of three NEW robotics teams in Dexter for grades K-8 this fall. We have successfully recruited enough mentors and students to form K-3rd, 4-6th, and 7-8th grade teams. The Dreadbots will be facilitating the formation of these teams by gathering contact information for interested families. The Dreadbots will be assisting with mentoring these programs using both experienced adult team mentors, as well as current high school Dreadbot team members.
These programs will be operated through the same host organization as the high school team: FIRST Robotics. Please contact DHSDreadbotOutreach@gmail.com for more information. If there is sufficient interest, the Dreadbots will explore adding additional teams, but more volunteers (no previous experience or special background necessary) will be needed, as each team requires two coaches.
The robots are coming! Please join us!
MAIN PHOTO: The Dreadbot Mark IX is carried off the field for the last time by Drive Team members Abbie Van Noord and Andrew Merriman. Photo by Gerry McConville
Krystin Nelligan is a sophomore team member of the Dreadbots.