Thursday, February 10, 2011

FIRST Robotics.

I told some people that I would write about how the robotics thing I am doing is going but have never got around to doing it. To those people I apologize, and to everyone, this may be a long post as it is long overdue.

So for those who don't know I have been given this chance to help out a high school team that is competing in the "FIRST Robotics Competition". You can check out the website for more info, . I got the opportunity through my school. One of my professors, Michael Zohourian, was involved with the high school through a passport to college program where the students would come to DeVry to learn electronics and whatnot. So he got involved in the robotics team as a mentor at John F. Kennedy high school. I work part time at DeVry as a tutor, so for the competition I get to help at the high school and still get paid as if I were tutoring.

The students have to build a robot that plays a game called LogoMotion. Any explanation I give probably wouldn't make much sense so better just watch the video explanation The kids, with help from mentors, have 6 weeks to build the robot. I have been involved for the past three weeks and next week is the last week they get to build before they have to send it off to Davis for the regional competition. I Know it seems like a lot to do in such a short time bit one of the philosophies behind the competition is that it's "A job too big, in a time too small". It really puts the pressure on, but it also helps to get the kids motivated to make things happen. It's not like senior project in college where you have plenty of time to slack off, lose interest, and become bored with the project. It's a concentrated dose of awesome.

The team usually meets 4 days a week after school and work on the robot till they can't work any longer. I have been going on Tuesdays and Thursdays from about 3:30 till 6:30. When I leave, dinner is just arriving and almost everyone is still there, hard at work. I don't really know when they leave, but I like to imagine that they work until they start passing out, but I guess that wouldn't be safe, and safety is really a big concern.

The first day I showed up I was more than impressed by the scope of the activities going on. I don't really remember what I was expecting but when I arrived there were kids everywhere; drilling, machining, grinding, cutting, welding. I ended up helping out with a smaller group of students who were in charge with the more technical, and less mechanical aspects of the robot. The main task for us is to program the robot. One of the mentors, Kevin, is the parent of one of the students and is a full time programmer himself. He has made a lot of progress in understanding how to program the robot.

The robot is programmed with LabView from National Instruments. It uses a graphical aproach to programming so there is not much, if any, actual code being written. Most of my degree deals with electronics and programming languages. It would not be too hard to learn this program that is new to me but Kevin was helping from the beggining so he has a 2 week head start on me, so trying to catch up with him would have been somewhat redundant. One of the most difficult parts is trying to find a way to be useful while not getting overwhelmed with all the stuff that is going on.

One thing that I have been able to contribute to has been figuring out how the image recognition software works. Part of the game the robot has to do things all by itself, and programming the robot to be able to interpret the images it captures with the camera is a big part of being successful in the autonomous period of the game. It's not as hard as you may think. The software takes care of the super complicated parts, but it still takes much trial and error with the vision software to get it to recognize objects in a photo.

One big problem is lighting. Getting the right amount and the right kind of light is important for the vision to work consistently. The game wall is marked with something called retro reflective tape. It's like that stuff they cover road signs with. Basically, light that shines on the material is reflected back in the direction that the light came from. I was able to help them with this. They were kinda at a loss on how to get some lighting wired up but that sort of thing is exactly what I am good at. I was able to make them a small array of "super bright" blue LEDs so that they could test the vision under good lighting conditions. I built it on a breadboard(ie a non permanent build) with a knob to control the brightness. Kevin had said that more might not be better for the lighting so I added the control based on his concern.
Alright, this thing is getting really long now and I feel like I am rambling a bit. I'll leave it here for now. If you made it this far I congratulate you and thank you for sticking with me. Until next time.

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