Progression and Regression: A Look Back at the Robotics Team’s Wild Season

On October 28, 2017, the sky was enveloped in a silvery overcast which blanketed the entire state. On this day, before Dawn rose, the Big Red Robotics team was frantically working on the finishing touches to compete in the 2017 Music City BEST robotics tournament at Lipscomb University. The air was tense. Students and coaches were furiously working around the clock making last minute preparations for the competition. Time was slipping away, and the machine was still not complete. Drills were used, duct tape was slapped on, and students were running around the Robotics room searching for the one screwdriver they needed. These were stressful times.

Six weeks prior, the team arrived at the university campus to commence the building phase for the competition, as well as learn the rules and conditions of the event itself. When they arrived, they learned the competition’s goals and stipulations. Themed on using robots for industrial fire control and rescue, the playing field is a twenty-four foot square with multiple different concentric zones. The outermost area is called the “cold zone.” This zone is where all robots start at each round, and all can move freely in this area. Closer to the center is the “hot zone.” Unlike the cold zone, only the robot designated to a specific color can enter a certain quadrant at a certain time, while no other robot can enter that specific quadrant. The innermost zone, the no-entry zone, can not be reached by any means and represents a burning building. The game is points based, with a maximum possibility of 600 points earned per round. Points can be earned in three ways: rescuing a small manikin from the hot zone and placing him in a stretcher within a certain amount of time, transporting cans filled with golf balls to a containment area, and launching hollow golf balls towards cups in the center zone that represent flames. With the information accumulated, the team got to work.

During the six weeks between opening day and the competition, the team went straight to work. They began to plan and debate which methods would be the most reliable to complete the tasks at hand. After roughly a week debating and discussing different solutions, a consensus was made. For the design, A claw system would function both as a means of grabbing the manikin, amusingly named Manny, and the metal cans. Additionally, two small plates bolted onto one claw, designed by both 7th grader Lain Orndorff and 10th grader Walker Byrd, would function as a way to increase grip on Manny, making the claw mechanism more reliably grab the helpless manikin. A mangonel, designed by team captain Sam Decoster, would also be placed on top of the robot to launch the golf balls and knock down the cups, but the task of knocking down the cups was given less priority, due to its unreliability and overall point yield compared to the two other tasks. With this design in mind, the team worked as one to have a fully functioning machine completed by the given date.

GETTING A TUNE UP: 11th Graders Sam Decoster and Aditya Priyadarshi make adjustments just minutes before competing against opposing robots. PHOTO: WALKER BYRD

GETTING A TUNE UP: 11th Graders Sam Decoster and Aditya Priyadarshi make adjustments just minutes before competing against opposing robots. PHOTO: WALKER BYRD

A long six weeks later, the team was making the last arrangements on the eve of the competition, during the waning hours of a lively Friday evening. The robot was still not completely finished, and drivers still needed to be chosen. Due to the time crunch, the drivers had to show up at MBA in the wee hours of Saturday morning, and the ones chosen were 11th graders Brandon Hall, Brandon Lewis, and Michael Owings as well as the 10th graders Pete Rowlett and Walker Byrd. In addition to these 5 drivers, a spotter, a member responsible for making adjustments to the robot on the field, was appointed with 11th grader Nathan Goodrum assuming that role. With drivers and spotters assigned, the team was finally ready to compete.

THE TERMINATOR: Final mockup of the robot, created mostly by Pete Rowlett and Nathaniel Goodrum

THE TERMINATOR: Final mockup of the robot, created mostly by Pete Rowlett and Nathaniel Goodrum

It was time for the competition. The odds were stacked against MBA. Long time champions of the competition, including but not limited to Merrol Hyde Magnet School, appeared again to wipe the floor. The team did not even plan to beat that school; they simply did not have the manpower to best them. Instead, the team set their own goal: to have a functioning machine that lasted for the entire duration of the competition.

When first arriving, problems already began to arise. While test driving during the practice round, the rail piece holding the two claws together failed, resulting in the machine’s inability to grab either the manikin or the cans. Nevertheless, the team improvised and remedied the situation by removing one set of claws. This solution was sufficient, and the robot was back up and running.

After all was said and done, the team finished 8th overall, a first for the team. Their robot also worked for the entire duration of the competition, yet another first. Although the team didn’t win, this year’s season was a sign of progress for the program as a whole. However, there were still areas where the team needed to prove, such as organization and time management. This season can absolutely be called a success for the MBA Robotics Team and paves the way for a bright future for the program.