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.