Defeat at District Champs
Hello, Internet! Cole here. I haven’t talked about robotics in a while, so I’m going to revisit it this month. Blue Cheese, Deep Run’s FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Team, still exists, and I’m still part of it. Specifically, I ghostwrite and proofread certain documents related to various awards, such as the Chairman’s Award, a highly prestigious award given to teams who “best represent a model for other teams to emulate and best embody the purpose and goals of FIRST.” I am also part of the Chairman’s team, a subgroup of Blue Cheese dedicated entirely to receiving this particular award. Chairman’s, you see, has its own type of competition within FIRST; the winners of the award at a lower level of competition automatically rise to the next highest level to compete with other winners, meaning a team who wins Chairman’s at a regional competition goes to District Championships and a team who wins at District Championships goes to the World Championship.
Anyway, on to recent affairs. Last month, we attended Chesapeake’s District Championships, having lost the quarterfinals at the regional competition (hosted at our very own school) but won Chairman’s. (I don’t know whether we went because we won Chairman’s or because we were high enough in the rankings already to move on. Either way.)
The competition was at the xFinity Center stadium of the University of Maryland, so we had to carpool to a nearby hotel. I shared a room with P., I., and J., all decent people and not-too-troublesome roommates. After replacing my two room keycards that didn’t work with three that did, I set up my section of the bedroom, made a few terrible gnome puns based on the “wonderful” Sherlock Gnomes movie (which had just come out then), and tried to get to sleep, receiving 33 winks with the help of Aleve PM.
Day 1: Preparation
In the morning, the team ate breakfast together in a reserved room with a continental breakfast line. Once we had finished, I went upstairs, found that the keycards I obtained last night no longer worked, went back downstairs, got three new ones, went back upstairs, entered the room, and retrieved my safety glasses and cheesehead. I was ready to go to District Championships.
My ride was not, however, ready to park there. I hate to slam the University of Maryland, but the campus was almost labyrinthine with respect to the hourly-pay parking garage we actually wanted to park in. The roads, it seemed, led to every parking space and every location in the university except that one. After thirty minutes of fruitless wandering, Dad finally parked in a tolled parking spot to let me enter the stadium so he could keep looking on his own.
This particular day was not the most eventful for me, honestly. As with most FIRST competitions, this competition began with a large number of playoff matches – in this case, 120 – to allow each team to participate in exactly 12 matches (60 teams / 6 slots per match * 12 matches per team = 120 matches) . Before even that, there were ten practice matches to test all the robots and the competition equipment.
Now I might as well explain what happens in each match. This year’s game is FIRST PowerUp, themed after classic video games. There are, as usual, 2 minutes and thirty seconds in each match: the first 15 are an autonomous period in which each robot acts on pre-written code without any user input, and the remaining 135 are a tele-operated period in which each robot acts on the input of its drive team. The game itself revolves around the strategic collection and placement of “Power Cubes” – rectangular plastic containers covered with a proprietary yellow jacket. The cubes can be placed on one of the two “switches”, seesaw-like structures that, if weighted down to their closest alliance’s side, grant that alliance 1 point per second; on the scale, a higher version of the switch that grants 1 pt/sec to whichever alliance weighs it down; and in the vault, a group of 3 columns behind each alliance. By taking cubes from the robots and placing them in the vault, human players can activate 3 different powerups:
1: Levitate – with 3 cubes in this column, one robot on the alliance automatically counts as having climbed the bar on the side of the scale.
(In this game, like in FIRST Stronghold, the endgame involves climbing a bar. However, the bar in PowerUp is much smaller than Stronghold’s, meaning having all robots climb is far more difficult. As such, the Levitate powerup is pretty much necessary for optimizing endgame points.)
2: Force – “weighs down” the alliance’s switch for 1 cube, the scale for 2, and both for 3. While Force is active, the team will receive points from the corresponding elements even if they are not weighted down.
3: Boost – Provides a 2x multiplier for the alliance’s switch for 1 cube, the scale for 2, and both for 3.
This was the game that various robots played in the stadium below me for 47 matches that day, including the ten practice matches. There were a few interesting competitors this year, including Ilite Robotics’ bot with its dynamic light system, a robot with a lift plate to elevate other robots during endgame, and even a “plunger-bot” that used pneumatic suction to pick up cubes.
Once the day was done, the team returned to the hotel for dinner. After dinner, I got 4 new cards to replace the other now-deactivated cards, and the concierge informed me that reactivating a card deactivated all the other cards for the room, so I’d have to distribute these new cards to my roommates. Once we all managed to get into the room, we cleaned ourselves up and went to bed.
Day 2: Presentation
The next morning, we went downstairs once again to eat breakfast. After eating breakfast, I met with Chairman’s Team members V. and M. and we rehearsed a certain script. I then went back up to retrieve my cheesehead and glasses, only to find the keycards unusable again. When I went down to re-re-re-reactivate them, a helpful woman informed me that electromagnetic interference – namely, our cell phones’ radiation – was most likely the cause of the cards’ continued non-functionality. With that in mind, I put the new cards in my back pocket, away from my phone, and retrieved my items.
Now ready to go, I entered the car – and we promptly hit traffic. Apparently the entrance to Maryland University was a bit bottlenecked today. While I waited, I recited my lines of the script again. I couldn’t afford to forget them now, because today was a special day.
After waiting in traffic for a mere hour, we reached the parking lot and entered the building. I first went to the stands to deliver the new cards and the woman’s advice to my roommates. Then, after watching a few matches, I went down into the robot maintenance pits and waited with V. and M. After about half an hour, two judges came to our pits to speak with us about our team – our outreach efforts, our business plan, et cetera. Now, it was the Chairman’s Team’s time to shine – or at, least, it was V. and M.’s time to shine. I made a few interjections, but ultimately I couldn’t find many good opportunities to enter the discussion.
After kicking myself for my social ineptitude, I returned to the stands. A few hours passed, and then the team met outside the building for lunch. I had a sandwich with too much tomato for my liking and an oatmeal raisin cookie.
At 1:00, V., M. and I unloaded a cart and television from Mrs. Kutz’s car and brought them into the building via a back door. In an area beneath the stands, we hooked a laptop up to the television and attached both to the cart with duct tape and screws. We practiced our lines a couple more times, then waited. At 2:30, we finally pushed the cart into a room with three judges. It was time to deliver our Chairman’s Presentation.
We stood before the judges and spoke for seven minutes. The presentation covered our team’s origins; our current sponsors; our many outreach programs; our efforts at legislative advocacy, including the successful passage of VA SB 246, which gave funds to STEM programs in underserved communities; and many other minor details. Our performance was, by my understanding, above adequate; we spoke fluently and kept pace with one another.
The judges’ questions, however, caught us off guard. They probed us for the details of our outreach efforts – their scope, their logistics, their sustainability. The worst moment was when they asked us about a new FIRST program that we had joined – FIRST Alliances – and none of us knew anything about it. After 5 minutes, the questions ended, and we left the room. Coach Wilson, Mrs. Kutz and my father greeted us and congratulated us on our performance, but I returned to the stands with a sense of disappointment and dread.
Five hours later, we returned to the hotel, had dinner and went to bed. I obtained 39 winks.
Day 3: Elimination
The next day the cards stopped working yet again, probably because we left them near our phones the previous night. We had to renew them once again, but this would be the last time. Today was the final day of the competition, and we would go home that night.
The morning was relatively uneventful. From 10:00 to 11:00 I manned the pits with V. and M., but no judges came to speak with us. For the rest of the time I stayed in the stands and watched the last of the playoffs.
At 12:30, though, an unsettling thing happened. Or, rather, it failed to happen: due in part to a mechanical breakdown during our final match, we did not make it into the top 8 ranks, nor were we selected for any of their alliances. In other words, we were out of the tournament, and we would not be able to attend Worlds unless we won Chairman’s.
I spent my lunch in a state of agitation, knowing that our team’s continuation to the world championships could hinge off of my performance yesterday. That’s a stupid thought, I told myself. I’m just a small part of our team’s efforts. Our success doesn’t depend on me alone. But I didn’t believe me.
To stave off my feelings of dread, I focused intently on the matches, cheering loudly when necessary (and sometimes when not), paying close attention to certain robots, and dancing when the music was appropriate. The event really was quite exciting, especially as it reached its zenith.
Eventually, though, the finals concluded, the awards ceremony began, and my dread returned at full force. Chairman’s, being the most prestigious of all the awards, was the last one given out at the ceremony, giving me ample time to marinate in self-doubt and anxiety and, against my better judgment, to hope that somehow we would win. Even when we won the Engineering Inspiration award, which my teammates saw as a sure sign we wouldn’t win another award, I hoped. Even when 1885 Ilite Robotics won the first Chairman’s award, as it does every year, I hoped that we would get the second one.
We did not win the second one. It went to the Garrett Coalition.
Now, I’ll give credit. Engineering Inspiration awards aren’t to be taken lightly, and the fact we won anything at District Championships is respectable. Also, both Ilite and the Garrett Coalition are wonderful teams who give their all to help the community, and they deserved to win for their efforts. Therefore, please know that I have the utmost respect for the conditions surrounding our loss when I say that I started crying soon after I learned of our failure. I’m sorry, but my emotions were just too intense. I felt that I had failed everyone, even when everyone came together to tell me otherwise.
Anyway, I recovered somewhat quickly after the competition was over. The judges who viewed the presentation gave us very positive (if a bit unhelpful) feedback. My blaming myself, as it usually is, was completely unwarranted. In the future, I’ll need to stop doing that. Thanks for reading, Internet, and I’ll be seeing ya’!
thinking about all the things that I could have done better during the presentation. Maybe if I’d read the documents, I told myself, I would’ve known the answers to those questions.
Cole is our young adult monthly contributor. He is an incredible asset to all of us. He is in the IT program in Henrico County, has Asperger’s and is also an animal whisperer.