End of the old FTA

Reflection on my volunteer role as the FIRST Tech Challenge changes for the 2015 season.

A new season

Today (September 12, 2015) marks the start of the 2015 FIRST Tech Challenge season. Every year brings a different challenge for students to solve, and every few years the systems enabling them to accomplish that challenge get an upgrade. This year the robot control system is moving away from a LEGO-made microcontroller to an Android-based setup. Instead of mounting a LEGO NXT brick on their robots, students will be mounting a phone.

This change isn't suprising, considering the processing power and relatively low expense of smartphones. Students will program their robots in Java instead of a special brand of C++, and they will interact with Android apps instead of proprietary firmware. As someone interested in the advancement of FTC and robotics education in general, I love the new setup.

A look back

In November 2008, FIRST Tech Challenge teams used a Bluetooth connection between their own laptops and the robot in order to control them. Beside the field you'd see carts and trays holding laptops with joystick controllers attached. The deficiencies of the system were notable; Bluetooth connections were unreliable, mispairings would occur, and teams had to start their robots manually along with the official timer. The technology being used too often affected the outcome of the matches.

My high school hosted a competition in November 2008, but we were trying something different. As the first competition of the 2008 season (in the world), we were selected to beta-test a new wireless system. It was called the Samantha module (apparently named after the daughter of its creator) and it allowed the robots to connect wirelessly with a field router. The playing field was alive; it started and stopped the robots simultaneously, transmitted joystick data from USB hubs attached to the structure, and reported information about the robots to an operator. Everything was controlled by a single computer. At the helm for that first live test? Me.

In November 2008, as an energetic young freshman in high school, I volunteered as the Field Control System (FCS) Operator. My training came in the form of a kind and quiet affiliate partner whom I met setting up the competition field. He walked me through the software, its quirks, and what to do if everything went horribly wrong. He talked about the known issues and the failure cases. He treated me as a volunteer, and not just a rogue student.

Most of that day was forgettably smooth. We reported a bug and noted a few matches where weird things happened. The software was a work in progress, so it was to be expected. As a result of the hard work of its creators and that test run, the Samantha module became a staple of FTC teams from 2009-2014.

From 2008-2012 I would continue volunteering instead of participating in FTC. My experience during that first competition was more interesting and compelling than participating on my school's FTC team - plus, the team was involved in other robotics competitions besides FTC. Each time, the affiliate partner or one of two main Field Technical Advisors for the state would update me on changes to the software, known issues with the field, or whatever else had come up. Despite seeing each other only periodically, I considered these people mentors.

In 2012 it was recommended that I try out some new roles. Being an FCS Operator can be difficult because of the constant amount of attention it takes - there is almost always something to do or keep an eye on. After four years I had also exhausted the amount of exposure to "how things work" that could be gained by sitting behind the controls. In concert with my move to college, I began working as a Field Technical Advisor's Assistant.

If you need help, wave at me

The Field Technical Advisor had quite a few roles. Field setup and takedown was one, because the electronics were nontrivial to deal with. During the day, FTAs watched the matches with an intensity rivaled only by the referees. Should a robot suddenly stop moving or lose control, the FTA's job was to triage the problem from the safety of the field's walls and do anything possible to keep the game going. In the event of a failure of the field, the FTA would advise the referees that the match should be replayed. Most importantly, when a robot failed, the FTA would try to explain to the team why.

As an assistant, I assisted and learned. Every time something went wrong, a lead FTA would explain to the team what happened, and explain to me why. Eventually I started talking to teams more and occasionally holding the title of FTA myself. The FTAs in the Orlando area got to know one another quite well, and we all had a good time supporting one another. News of a particularly bad tournament (one had inconsistent power, and the brownouts wreaked havoc with the field system) or an interesting pattern of issues would get around between us. We collectively fought a battle against the NXT lockup issue for years, wherein the LEGO NXT brick would freeze in a seemingly random fashion. (It turned out to be an issue with electrostatic discharge, a diagnosis that proved elusive because such factors as ambient humidity and length of cords were strong factors.)

We grew with FTC. The number of teams in the state/nation/world increased without bound. The speed with which we could diagnose issues and articulate them to teams improved. I got to see teams cautiously move at the start of the season and valiantly charge at the state championship.

Moving on

With the new system, the FTA is no longer concerned with any field systems. Students once again hold joysticks, this time connected to an Android phone in their coach's hand. Their phone talks to another phone on the robot, and there is no middleman to keep an eye on. We still care about the physical aspects of the field - it turns out that robots can cause damage - but the wireless connections, control, and all information about the systems, is left quite literally in the hands of the teams.

I spoke today with the (now retired) affiliate partner who encouraged me to check out the FTA position several years ago. We both expressed some regret that we would no longer have our previously presecribed duties (he would often act as an FTA because of his detailed knowledge of the systems). However, the lack of a field system gives us the opportunity to go to teams directly. We can spend more time walking around, answering questions, and diagnosing individual issues. We can sit and watch a match. Our flashlights need not be at the ready so much anymore, and we're less likely to be reaching into the field to shut down a dangerously malfunctioning robot.

I look forward to that role: more advice, less triage. The change was inevitable; luckily, the new system is a great deal of progress as well.

FIRST, FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC), LEGO, NXT, Android, Bluetooth, and Samantha are probably all trademarks of some entity that isn't me. The views expressed here are my own, and don't represent those of FIRST.