Automation excellence has come to the playing fields at FIRST robot competitions. If students are going to compete with robotic technology and learn the importance of superior technology, it helps if the competitive playing field is run by leading-edge automation technology. 4FX Design and CimQuest INGEAR have created a highly automated field of play for FIRST robot competitions.
The non-profit organization FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) challenges high school teams from around the world to build and program do-it-yourself robots. The organization then puts the teams into competition at events where students remotely control their robots on special playing fields where their robots compete in short games such as basketball.
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The teams compete for college scholarships, so scoring accuracy is critical. In addition, the competitions can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce, so the technology involved needs to be the best available. To help manage the events and eliminate any possibility of error, FIRST asked 4FX Design to develop a foolproof system to automate the playing field.
The new system updated the previous human machine interface (HMI) and included a custom software application and an Allen-Bradley programmable logic controller (PLC). The HMI was programmed in Visual Basic.NET and needed a way to communicate with the PLC that was programmed in ladder logic while also communicating with the underlying database and Modbus-based devices that automate components on the playing field such as scoring mechanisms, buttons, and lights.
To address this issue, 4FX Design first evaluated proprietary software from large HMI suppliers such as Siemens and Allen-Bradley, but 4FX Design discovered that proprietary programs were too expensive for the non-profit. 4FX then found alternative software solutions from several suppliers, including CimQuest INGEAR. 4FX opted to build an application for a large custom interface for the new system using INGEAR’s PLC driver software, which cost only a few hundred dollars and had no runtime fees.
4FX found that INGEAR also fit well with the sponsor technology FIRST was using. "INGEAR is a licensed third-party software library that interfaces Microsoft .NET – c# or c-sharp – with Allen-Bradley controllers. We use the Allen-Bradley controllers on the fields as they are a big sponsor of FIRST," Bob Pitzer, owner and founder of 4FX Design, told Design News. "We use the Microsoft .NET framework for the HMIs as Microsoft is another large sponsor. It's a way to interface the two together. INGEAR sells the software libraries for this exact same reason in industry."
The INGEAR libraries contained all the necessary Allen-Bradley drivers to be used with Microsoft Visual Basic or Visual Studio. NET to develop an HMI application that provided industrial services. INGEAR facilitated access to memory, databases, I/Os, and communications, letting programmers get the information they needed from the PLC, process it in a PC, and send commands back to the PLC for control. "In this case, we thought of the automated playing field as analogous to a huge 'machine,' " said Pitzer.