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Following the Bouncing Ball at FIRST Robotics’ Crossroads Regional

March 7, 2014


Photo by Steve Voltmer

Basketball season may be over at Rose-Hulman’s Hulbert Arena, but balls are still bouncing and points are being scored as 45 high-school teams try to conquer the Aerial Assist game challenge at FIRST Robotics’ Crossroads Regional—stimulating youths toward careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Basics of the Aerial Assist game are easy to grasp: teams earn points for getting their robots to pick up, pass, and throw a fitness ball into target areas in a large playing field that covers Hulbert Arena in Rose-Hulman’s Sports and Recreation Center. A quick scan of the rules outlines at least 15 different scoring permutations, with teamwork being a key ingredient to overall success.

A large truss straddling the middle of the field is a target for teams wishing to get even more points, if a ball goes over it on the way to the target areas. And, any balls deposited by robots during a 10-second opening autonomous control period gain bonus points during each match. Major credit is given a three-team alliance for having each robot handle the ball as it moves across the playing field’s three zones.

The 45 teams competing in this year’s Crossroads Regional offer 45 different ways for robots to score points—from simple to the very technological complex.

“We tried to remain true to our core principle of having a very versatile robot, especially in a game like Arial Assist, where it is very import to be team oriented,” shares Shawn McCall, a member of BEAST Robotics from Brookfield, Wisconsin.

Teammate Ed Oaks adds, “In past years, we had been disappointed with our lack of mobility. Speed is really important for this year’s game. So, we really focused on that.”

One of the more experienced teams, The Black Knights of Mishawaka, Indiana, had similar ideas regarding mobility, with a twist. “We have an incredibly fast, small drive train system. That gives us a low center of gravity,” notes second-year team member Alex Norton. “We have a very powerful catapult. Our robot can actually pass over the (centerfield) truss from the first zone (on the field), which is a big advantage.”

Other teams came up with innovative devices to throw the ball into elevated scoring targets at the end of the playing field.

“We knew we wanted a reliable shooter,” says Kevin Daniel-Hamberg, a member of The Bobcats from Grandview, Ohio. He shared some of the process that the team went through to design their point-scoring robot during the six-week construction cycle. “We started with a horizontal shooter, but realized that a vertical shooter would work better,” he states.

The team’s final design incorporates a feature that appears to be a fairly popular design choice among teams that did not go with a catapult—using wheels to propel the ball into the goal. However, getting a ball to score offers even more challenges.

Members of The Bobcats decided to go with a tried-and-true method, using two pneumatic-powered arms to open up and grab the ball, then lifting it into the shooting device.

Other teams, such as Team Hammond from Hammond, Indiana, use the same basic idea, but with a twist: putting treads in a helix formation on the arms. Then, the arms rotate to place the ball into the body of the robot more quickly.

Teams will finalize their competition strategies during qualification matches on Saturday, March 8, from 9 a.m.-12:15 p.m. Then, teams will form their alliances for the final rounds, taking place from 1:30-4:40 p.m. All events are free and open to the public.