Help Wanted: Mentors

My first year as a Roboravens Mentor (2018-2019)
By: Stephane Gauthier

When Dean Kamen told me I had to volunteer as a mentor, I was reluctant. I’m a hardware engineer by trade, have designed various embedded computers and broadcast video systems, but what did I know about robots?  Answer – nothing. But Dean is a pretty tough guy to say no to. His enthusiasm is contagious, he’s a multi-millionaire inventor, and he’s like a real life Tony Stark but without the attitude. Then there was the part where he said that I had a responsibility to train the next generation, and if people like me didn’t mentor then how could we expect our kids to do this?  That got me. Then there was the story that if you get a selfie with Dean you are obligated to volunteer. Not sure that’s true but regardless, here I am now, almost exactly one year after bumping into him at the Embedded Vision Conference in Santa Clara, California, writing an article about my impressions as a new Mentor.

So let me walk you through a season with the RoboRavens.

I’ll never forget the first day.  The team consists of many functional groups with specific expertise.  The teams are build, programming, design, admin, and drive team. The teams were split up into rooms. I had lots of video experience, so I gravitated towards the vision team (FYI video is not the same as vision!).  Vision was grouped with programming, so Steven (one of the senior students on the team) proceeds to setup a projector to teach some of the newbies the basics of C++. We had a projector that doesn’t focus properly, had really low resolution, and had a narrow throw so it showed up as a very small, slanted screen on the wall; you just couldn’t read the code!  But Steven, undeterred, proceeded to zoom into the sections of code he was walking the gang through so the characters would be larger and at least semi-legible on the screen. If you think your teacher’s handwriting is tough to read, try squinting sideways at C++ code! He was in a really awkward position, holding the laptop in a precarious way, and I thought that any second now he’s going to fall over, trip on the VGA cord and bring the whole thing crashing down around him as he lands on the laptop and snaps it in two!  But he didn’t. Despite all the odds being against him, he found a way to make it work. I didn’t understand the significance of it at the time, but I see now that his determination and “can do” attitude was a foreshadowing of things to come.

The next few weeks go by and I watch the various teams enter into planning sessions on how they can advance their technology and train the newcomers. Most people probably don’t know this but the actual game rules for competition only get revealed in early January, and each team has 6 weeks to design, build, test and fine tune their robot before competitions begin. Yes, 6 weeks!  So September to December was spent in preparation for the big “reveal”, scheduled for January 5th. What really struck me during this period was how the senior students would take on the responsibility of coaching the newer members. Each team had mini projects to tackle in order to learn and prepare for the reveal. Watching these projects unfold actually reminded me of the projects I used to run as an Engineering Manager, a long time ago for a company far, far away. There were team leads, plans with schedules and deliverables, routine sync-ups and progress reports. If something was going off course action would be taken. (At this point I’m talking about the RoboRavens, not my old design team!)  This was a great practice run as we headed into build season.

Build season? What’s build season?
A) Starts from reveal day and ends on first day of competitions
B) A period of intense sleep deprivation and no time for homework
C) Madness, chaos, followed by intense productivity, followed by more madness and chaos
D) All of the above

Ask anyone on the team, and “D” is the only answer.  To build a robot in 6 weeks requires an incredible investment in time and passion, and these kids gave plenty of both. Build season was an eye opener. Four evenings a week and Saturdays.  The place was just hopping. Everyone’s busy, but you can sense the fun amid the panic. It felt more like a family than an after hours school program. 

Now here’s where things got really intense.  Development was behind. Way behind. Less than 2 weeks to go and the frame was still not complete. The competition, sponsored by Boeing, was called “Destination: Deep Space”. The arena replicated a spacecraft landing site. The robots had 3 minutes to gather all the cargo and load it on the ships before take-off. Each match started with a 15 second “sandstorm” where drivers can’t even see the field, and must rely on the robot’s remote vision system. Scoring points required the robots to be able to grab objects like hatches and cargo balls, deposit them with precision, and go back for more. While other teams were undoubtedly practicing these actions, we still didn’t have a fully functioning base robot.  How were we ever going to get it all done? How could we possibly fine tune the bot? How was the drive team going to have any chance of practicing? 4 months of pre-season work, 4 weeks of long, hard hours since reveal day, and the situation was getting desperate. Was it all going to be for nothing?

What I experienced was remarkable. The team refused to let despair set in.  Failure was not an option. They worked long hours and didn’t give up (wish I could get my daughter Brogahn to have the same passion for tidying her bedroom). With one week to go, the robot is finally up and running. Drive team is getting in a few practice runs while build is scrambling to design and attach a manipulator.  There’s no time now to create something to grab the cargo balls, so the strategy shifts to handling the hatches. We have something that should work but no time to test it now. 3, 2, 1….STOP. The 6 weeks are up. Deadline is reached. Robot goes in the bag and the rules say we can’t touch it again until competition. Is the hatch extractor going to work?

A week later, we’re at Durham College in Oshawa.  This is the first time anyone will see robots from the different schools. The place is crawling with activity. 40 teams from all over Ontario will fight for first place. The Alpha Dogs, team 4946 is here. Crescent Coyotes 610 are here, and MMRambotics 2200 are also here.  These are top teams and favourites to make it to the final. Pits are all setup by the time I get there. While other teams are participating in the practice rounds on the arena and getting some field experience, the RoboRavens are running into technical issues. The bot won’t turn!   Our bot is now surrounded by the aspiring engineers trying to understand if the problem is mechanical or software. Failure is not an option, so they kept at it. They were relentless, like the Borg. Practise rounds are over, the organizers are now announcing the start of the competition and our team gets called.  There’s no time left. 

We’re on the field. Vision system worked in the pit, but now that we’re on the field system, we can’t communicate with the camera, so we can’t move during the sandstorm. Storm over, 2 minutes and 15 seconds left for this match, and Darren pushes the lever to move this robot forward.  6 months of hard work now come down to this crucial moment. The camera didn’t respond, will the robot respond? The wheels spins, the robot takes off like a racehorse. But there’s something wrong with the steering. It feels sluggish and clumsy. Darren pushes through but driving is difficult. The hatch manipulator is not working as well as we had hoped so we struggle to score points.  Match over, back to the pits.

What happened next was a critical turning point in the competition, and in my opinion, in the team’s history. 

Rather than give in to frustration and hopelessness, the pit crew turned up the volume and disassembled the frame to address the wheel alignment. Vision team starts debugging the system to figure out why the camera won’t communicate, Paul comes over to lend his networking experience to help.  After a few more matches, we get enough downtime in between matches to correct the wheel alignment problem. At this point the pit crew can probably take the frame apart and put it back together with their eyes closed. We figure out the camera problem and are now able to communicate with it on the field. The drive team has decided that we should focus on defense.  We have a solid bot with a dual speed transmissions, so we have both power and speed. With vision coming online we can see through the sandstorm and score early. The storm is now over and we move to a defensive posture. The robot, and the team, begin to take on a new life. The defense strategy was a brilliant move. Darren’s driving and the robot’s speed and agility turn our bot into a force to be reckoned with. People start to notice.  610 and 2200 start to notice. From that point on we blocked robots left and right. They did not pass. The robot was dubbed “Gandalf” and the team chanted “Thou shall not pass”. It was a moment.

In the span of 24 hours we went from not being able to take part in the practice matches to being picked by the top team to form an alliance for the finals. The result was astounding. Our alliance went undefeated from quarters to semis, and then on to win the final. It was a moment in time that won’t be forgotten. Never had an Ottawa team “brought home the blue”.  Everyone was ecstatic. Thinking back to how things felt that 5th week of build season, there was no way to predict it would ever come to this. 

The rest of the season is history.  The next tournament in North Bay gave us enough points to qualify for the provincial championships – another first for the RoboRavens. At provincials we made it inside the top 8 (#7 to be precise) and were in a position to form our own alliance for the finals. We had what was arguably the best defensive bot in the league, and raised the awareness on the value of having a strong defensive bot in an alliance. 

For my own personal journey, it was a real privilege to work with both the students and the mentors.  I have to applaud the mentors because of the unbelievable, and concerning, amount of time they donated (don’t they have a life?). As exciting as it was to win, I think the best part for me was experiencing the sheer determination this team showed. I’m a generally positive person but I learned from watching these kids simply refusing to give up.  The reality is that life is no different. Whatever you do, wherever you go, things are always going to get in the way. What happens next will depend on the choices you make. You guys have made me proud to wear the purple 4783 hoodie because of the choices you have made.  Thank you!

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