February 4, 2013

robot battle - a #VEX ing day (blog with photos)

Last Saturday, I was part of the small team that hosted a robotics tournament featuring at least 300 participants and spectators, 28 teams, three live displays, two playing fields, and a qualifying spot for the World Championships on the line.

Although we had only a vague understanding of the equipment and software before setting up Friday night, it's amazing that we got the tournament underway only one hour delayed. Huge thanks to Dougherty Valley High's team for bringing the second field control unit; without that, we might have ended at 8 p.m. instead of 5 p.m. If we were lucky.

Friday night we set up the two fields and tested out the network, the three projector displays, and the fields. We didn't have all the equipment to actually run a practice match, so we quit setup around 8:30 p.m. and resumed about 6:30 Saturday morning. The kids were a big help setting up the fields, but the rest of it was up to the three adults who were the least clueless about technology... and who were also the least clueless about not volunteering.

The first field went up quickly. Notice it's not wired yet.
It took surprisingly long to figure out where the tables would go to control the flow of the matches.
The second field didn't arrive until 7:30, but it was up in 15 minutes.
The finished field, 

My schematic of the setup. Fields, laptops, projectors all clearly diagrammed.

I'd attended portions of VEX tournaments in the 2011-2012 school year, but I'd never hosted one. It's an enormous task, far more complex than I had imagined. And chaotic. When you have dozens of teams of high school geniuses vying for top honors, you get some questions like, "When will you have the schedule done?" And, "How about now?" And, "What about now?"

Our club would be fielding three different robots, the A, B, and E teams. They set up shop in the location closest to the concession stand, and they spared no effort in making their space comfortable.
The kids brought the sofas from the school library. Guess who had to put them back?
The work pit was also productive, though, with mods going on all day.
Once we got the first competition underway, however, there were very few glitches. The second match was rerun because a bad cable put one team at a disadvantage. Other than that, our fields and network worked pretty reliably all day. But there wasn't a single second I felt relaxed because if anything had gone wrong, I wouldn't have had a @#$!# clue how to fix it.
The first match is underway! And... it all works!
Most impressive to me (besides the fact that we got the equipment to work) was the behavior of the teams. I did not encounter a single student who behaved badly in any way. One team had a complaint about the field not working (we decided it was team error, not field error), but they were courteous and gracious about it despite their disappointment. A couple of adults got a bit feisty from time to time, but for the most part everyone was civil and helpful and quite pleasant.

Even though the competition was cutthroat.

Look at the intensity on Ethan's face as he drives the bot!
Teams paired up in a 2-on-2 competition, red team versus blue team.
The team to score the most beanbags in the goals won the round.
The spirit of competition was trumped only by the spirit of collaboration, with
teams helping other teams overcome technical anomalies throughout the day.
The least likely robot, the E Machine, made it to the quarterfinals on the strength of
great driving and the luck of being paired up with excellent partners in the late matches.
The E Machine tended to get stuck on top of the beanbags and had some trouble
lifting them up to the goals, but in the end it did better than either of the A or B bots.
This competition is a great event, and it makes me sad that it's not more aggressively promoted to the high school community. I get constant emails about fundraisers and events for all kinds of sporting events at the high school, yet only two or three faculty and none of the school administration came to the event (that I was aware of).

We had about 15 or 18 schools represented from all over the region, fielding 28 different robots. Throughout the day we had at least 300 people participating or spectating or working the event. The club president, a senior at the school, did a fantastic job under great stress, as did the parent volunteers and our faculty advisor. The kids in our high school robotics club didn't fare so well in the competition, but in my eyes (and in the comments from everyone I spoke with), they represented well with great sportsmanship, a solid effort, and good hospitality. No awards for Northgate this time, and a thorough trouncing in the quarterfinals. But an event everyone should be very proud of, and which was terrific fun.

If I had to miss coaching my other son's 5-2 soccer victory over one of the best teams in our league, then this is what I would want to be doing instead.

Good job, Northgate Robotics! We'll get 'em next year.