The Allen-Bradley PLC controls playing field devices such as lights, buttons, sensors, and other components, but not the robots, which are strictly under the control of the student participants. Pitzer said:
The Allen-Bradley controller on the field controls all the I/O of the field: scoring, lighting and items like estop inputs. Having the Allen-Bradley controller do this frees the PC servers that run the competition to do more things with displays and the interconnectivity the system has with the web, including making autonomous Twitter posts about the game and posting results webpages on the
usfirst.org website as the events happen in real time.
4FX brought its industrial skills to the FIRST playing field. Pitzer continued:
We architected the original field system called FMS (Field Management System) and we continue to assist every year, as we have for the last eight years. We help to design the interfaces and automation to run the games. Our lead software manager still constructs the Microsoft portion of the system every year with assistance of other Microsoft .NET experts and contractors that work with him on other projects where FIRST engineering has taken on more of the role of assembling the field I/O.
While 4FX develops the technology for the playing field, the goal is to hand off the system to FIRST administrators.
We still assist in setting up the Allen-Bradley controllers, but that role is being slowly transferred in-house to FIRST so that they can become self-sustaining. When we started working with FIRST to architect the system, our lead software manager, Mike Linnen, discovered INGEAR while searching the Internet for established .NET and Allen-Bradley interfaces. We asked INGEAR if they'd like to help out and they have ever since.
The new automated system removes robots that have already played and places new robots onto the field. Event personnel then need only press a big start button on the large custom HMI to start the match. Pressing the button activates about 20 devices on the field which must all work in an orderly fashion to get that match running.
Typically, a match involves six robots and lasts only about two minutes. The system automatically captures inputs from scoring devices on the field, in real time. For instance, every time robots score a goal, sensors detect how many balls went through the hoop. The PLC captures this information and relays it to the large HMI, which also acts as a large display, showing updated scores for the crowds.
In addition to capturing all of the information that's coming from the I/O and incrementing the score, the program also generates graphic overlays for videos that will be broadcast online.
Rob, I saw my first FIRST robotics robots at the UBM Embedded Systems Conference in Chicago a few years back. It was interesting and fun to see the students show off their robots. That was not a competition, though.
This competition is a great use of the robots and the talents of the designers. Well done.
I agree. It's amazing to see how the competition field technologies have evolved over the years for FIRST. I'll be working with my high school students at Lawrence County Center of Technology on robotics competitions for SkillsUSA and BEST(Boosting Engineering, Science, and Technology). I'll be observing the competition field technologies used at these events.. Very interesting article and timely.
It's great to see these students turn classroom academics into real-world robotic solutions on the FIRST competitive field. These High School robotics (engineering) classes form alliances during the competition in order to promote advancement through teamwork and attempt to win the competition overall. Regional competitions are held on various dates in Las Vegas, San Diego and St. Louis if you want to see these students and their creations in action. Alternatively, NASA graciously broadcasts each event 'live' so you can watch the games from the comfort of your desk, very inspiring. Go High Rollers - Team 987!
These FIRST shows are great, Naperlou. I saw a couple competitions in 2013 -- one at National Instruments Week and one at the Rockwell Automation Fair. Next time I'll pay more attention to the scoring board. I didn't realize it ran on top-notch automation technology.
Forgive me, but I don't think FIRST is all that it is cracked-up to be. The projects are not so much 'robotics' as 'tele-robotics'. The technology aspect is good, but the competitions that I have seen focused on the joystick remote control performance portions. And for some teams, it seemed to be more the mentors' project than the students' project - some of the design and fabrication was definitely beyond the students' capability. A big aspect was fund-raising. But that does give the students exposure to the concepts of budgeting and cost-justification. And it is good to see some academic competition instead of just sports teams.
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