Winning with Robots
As the alarm blasts, six robots rev up their engines and start across the grassy terrain.
They make a beeline for the nearby riverbank, where sensors have triggered a pollution alert — a chemical spill is endangering the local ecosystem and the livelihoods of people downstream.
The robots make quick work of purifying the water, removing the contaminants and delivering them to the lab for further testing.
This hypothetical scenario of an eco-disaster was brought to life at this year’s FIRST Global Challenge Robotics Competition (FGCRC),
Held in Washington DC in July 2017, this annual contest of wits and skill brings together youths from around the world to build complex and mult-functional automatons.
This year, students from the Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) outmanoeuvred teams from more than 150 countries to bag the silver award for Singapore. The team comprised 17-year-olds Isaac Lee and Aron Choo, and 15-year-olds Tan Hsien Rong and Caven Chia.
Team captain Isaac chatted with TechNews about the challenges of building a multifunctional robot under time constraints, and the experience of competing on the global stage.
Q: What inspired your passion for robotics?
Building things has always been my passion. I had a big box of LEGO pieces at home, and I would play with them and see what creations I could come up with.
In addition, I was fortunate to have opportunities during primary school to experience robotics using LEGO. I attended an RCX workshop when I was in Primary Four and an NXT workshop in Primary Five.
(Editor: RCX and NXT are programmable LEGO systems.)
Robotics always seemed cool to me: it’s one thing to build something, but it’s an entirely different thing to see it move on its own, following instructions or commands that you program it with.
There’s a certain sense of satisfaction when the robot does what it’s supposed to do, and that fuelled my interest in robotics.
Q: What was your team’s mission during the competition?
The playing field was set up so that there was a ‘river’ flowing under a bridge.
Blue balls representing water particles and orange balls representing contaminants would float out from under the bridge, and our remote-controlled robots would have to pick up and sort the balls according to their colour, placing the orange ones in the laboratory.
At the end of the match, the robots were supposed to either park on the bridge or lift themselves off the ground using the climbing pole to score more points.
The game was played in a three-versus-three format, so we would work with robots built by teams from two other countries to score more points than the opposing alliance.
(Editor: You can check out competition highlights in the official video here. )
Q: What was your team’s winning strategy?
Our team’s winning strategy: The design of our robot!
Based on the mission profile, we created a mechanism that allowed us to pick up balls and sort them according to their colour using a conveyor-belt-like system. We also wanted a robot that could move fast and hold many balls at one time, so we adjusted the gearbox and incorporated a larger basket into our design.
But hardware aside, good communication was also vital to our strategy. As we had to work with two other teams, we needed to coordinate the movement and scoring cycles of all three robots during the match.
Before each match, our alliance would discuss starting positions, roles and functions of our robots, and during the match, all three teams would be talking to one another and adapting our robots’ movements accordingly.
Q: What was the biggest challenge your team encountered and how did you overcome it?
The biggest challenge for us was adapting to a robot design system that we had no experience working with before. The design system that we were used to had regularly spaced holes to place nuts and bolts in.
However, at the competition, the design system was based on rails where the screws could slide about, providing greater versatility but also causing some problems with alignment — it was difficult to ensure that our screws were along the same plane.
To overcome this problem, we resorted to using a pair of vernier calipers to make sure that the screws were perfectly aligned.
There was a lot of experimentation when it came to building the robot.
I don’t remember having any eureka or magical moment — it was just us trying, failing, assessing what went wrong, and trying again until the robot eventually worked.
Q: How did your team feel about winning the silver medal?
We joined the competition with the intention to win an award, so we’re very glad that our hard work has paid off.
We’re really honoured to be recognised as one of the best robotics teams in the world, and to be able to fly Singapore’s flag high on the international stage.
Our achievements would not have been possible without our friends back home who volunteered ideas and helped us build the robot.
During the competition, some of them even watched match replays on the internet and sent us information about other teams’ robots so that we could improve our strategy on the ground.
We are grateful for all their efforts and support!