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Devil Botz: A FIRST Contender

If you are not aware of the annual FIRST Robotics Competition, you're missing out. This contest, which is held by FIRST (the organization founded in 1989 by renowned inventor Dean Kaman to inspire young people's interest and participation in science and technology), is a contest among teams of students to determine who has invented a robot that can best handle a given series of tasks. The tasks the robots must complete change each year.

This year's competition, dubbed Logo Motion, requires robots to compete across a flat 27' x 54' foot field and hang as many inflated plastic shapes (triangles, circles, and squares) on their team's grids as they can during a 2 minute and 15 second match. The higher the teams are able to hang their game pieces on their scoring grid, the more points they receive.

 Devil Botz review checklist
With more than 2,000 teams competing in this year's competition, it's impossible for us to cover them all, so we decided to focus on one located not far from Design News' home offices in Lexington, MA. The team we're following is Burlington High School's team #2876, better known as Devil Botz.

Though Burlington High's team is made up largely of freshmen this year, this is the third year the school has entered the FIRST competition and a few seasoned seniors remain on the team. Devil Botz is 90 percent student managed and 10 percent mentor guided by industry experts from companies such as Oracle, MIT Lincoln Labs and PTC.

The students do all the work, make all the decisions and operate as a team. Of course, this means that the results can, at times, not deliver to expectations; but that is as much a part of the FIRST learning experience as anything else.

For this year's competition, the team has designed a robot with a single rotating arm that can pick up game pieces from the floor and hang them on all scoreboard locations. A pneumatic system is used to extend the arm an additional 16 inches to reach the top row - a key capability in this year's competition.

Throughout the project, the students used PTC's Creo Elements/PRO 3D CAD software to create preliminary design models. The models were used to evaluate design ideas, determine the operating envelope and validate inspection requirements.
Devil Botz 3D prototype created with PTC software

As an example of how the students used PTC's software, their first design was a three-piece multi-articulated arm. In this design iteration, the team discovered that it was very difficult to find the operating envelope until the pneumatic cylinders were attached with kinematic joints and constraints. Once these additions were made, the team members were better able to understand the full range of the robot's motion.

During the prototype and testing phase, the team collaborated with Minuteman Controls, a local automation and controls company, to work out issues with the pneumatic system.

To move the robot arm up and down, the team opted for a mini block-n-tackle cable system. Although this option proved to not be as fast as the direct drive prototypes the team initially built, Devil Botz found that it gave the programmers and the drivers much more control over the arm.

So far this year, Devil Botz has entered two local competitions and will also be participating in the Boston regionals.

As much as the FIRST competition is about building robots to win the event, it is just as much about teaching the students to experience all of the ups and downs associated with designing advanced technology systems. During the competitions so far this year, the team has experienced many of the mishaps that tend to occur in these events, such as inconsistent wiring connections, temperamental battery connections, communication interference between the controls and the robot, and new driver anxiety.

Despite these setbacks, Devil Botz has proven it has the right attitude -- as the team adopted a new motto in advance of the upcoming Boston regional event April 7-9, 2011. That new motto is:  Competition Ready.
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