By Claire Walla
For Pierson High School robotics students, the future is now.
These students have combined bits of plastic, wire and other scrap metal (not to mention complicated electronic devices) to create an otherwise inanimate object that moves on their command. And today, March 24, the students will travel with their creation to Hofstra University where they will compete against hundreds of other schools in the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC).
FRC was established in 1992 as a way to get high school students excited about and involved with learning new technologies. The organization, which has grown since its inception to include over 3,000 schools nationwide, sends out an extensive rule book and a set of specific parameters for all participating teams. While schools are restricted in their materials — some of which are included in the $5,000 cost of joining the competition — and measurements are quite specific, the teams are responsible for programming their creations.
In other words, they are fully in charge of bringing those scraps of metal to life.
This year’s robotics competition has challenged each team to create a device that can reach out and grab an inflatable shape and place it on a peg that juts out from a wall.
“I’m amazed that a school our size can build something like this,” said junior Adrian Pickering.
Though he speculates some schools outsource some of their labor, he added, “We’re one of the teams that builds the entire robot from scratch.”
Pierson High School Technology Teacher Tim Kraszewski, the team’s mentor, does helps with some of the computer programming and Pickering’s father Rick, who owns a machine shop in town, helped to craft some parts, “the kids do most of it,” Pickering said.
In fact, Adrian Pickering and fellow junior Nick Zappola, along with senior Garrett Severance sat down with the Sag Harbor Express to explain the elaborate process of making their machine come to life.
Starting with a basic frame of 28 by 38 inches, the team attaches various components, like something called a cRIO system. This little device, about the size of a fist, is essentially the brain of the whole operation. It will send signals to the robot’s arm, for example, telling it to move up and down.
But, you ask, how do the students tell the brain what to do?
During the competition, two members of the robotics squad will sit behind the control panel they’ve devised, which consists of four joy sticks and a Netbook computer. Using software designed to allow the robot specific functions, the students can control the bot as if playing a Nintendo game. Each button they push will send a signal to the robot via wireless Internet connection, which the robot can pick up thanks to the wireless adaptor situated right next to the brain.
The brain is also connected to an electrical panel, which is “what gives power to everything,” Zappola said. Including a little piece known as the digital side car.
Here’s where things begin to get tricky.
According to Pickering, the digital sidecar gets inputs and outputs called pulse width modulation (PWM).
“It basically determines how far apart the pulses are and it tells the speed controllers how fast to go and what direction to turn the motors,” Pickering said.
Using their controllers, the team essentially sends electronic pulses to the robot, which interprets the signals based on the computer software designed to recognize these codes, allowing the robot to move accordingly.
“It’s best to watch somebody do something before you do, that way you don’t screw up,” said Savarese, who said he didn’t know a lick of electronics before joining the robotics team this year.
But, as veteran team member Pickering added, messing up is part of the process.
“Last year, one of the speed controllers lit on fire because I was distracted as I changed it out and I switched these two wires [one red and one blue], which go to the speed controller,” Pickering explained. “And when you switch them, it does something to the electronics — it lit something on fire and [the robot] started to smoke.”
This year, Pickering continued, the team had to spend an entire Sunday trying to fix a problem that “increased the power of the motor so much that [the robot] was basically unstoppable.”
Pickering said these problems usually have pretty simple solutions. But, because the robot is a function of both complicated software equations and hardware that has many small components, the robotics team often has to run through an arduous process of elimination before the root of the issue is ultimately discovered.
And, as Zappola added, every little detail needs to be exact.
For example, he points to tiny silver cylinders on the digital side car no bigger than the head of a match.
“You really have to be careful when you put these in,” he said. “If you don’t put it in right, you could bend something and make [the system] break. You also want to make sure that the black negatives are on the outside, because if they were on the inside it would completely mess everything up.”
Zappola also said he had very little knowledge of electronics and engineering before he jointed the robotics team. Now, however, he’s hooked.
“It was so much fun. That’s why I spent just about every day after school and Saturdays working here,” he said. “It sort of changed my mind about my college situation. I’m going to go for liberal arts instead of marine biology. [Electronics] is something on the side I can do. Then, when I buy my own home, there’s no need to spend so much money calling an electrician, I can just fix things myself.”