The Aluminum Boy (a paper about my experience going to the world championship for FRC www.usfirst.org)
On the field there is intense competition, you want your robot to do well, no you need your robot to do well. You have spent the past six weeks living, and breathing this robot. It carries a part of you everywhere that it goes. But the time has come; it is all on the line. Time to prove that you have what it takes as a second year team to ride with the best of the best. Now it is the final qualifying event. The robot is in the final qualifying match... ever. Thanks to NASA and their streaming you can see it all from the comfort of your own home. All of the excitement, all of the primal feelings that are part of this challenge are so visceral you can feel it in your gut. Your team is assigned Galileo division, which is the most competitive one in the world. The designers say that the divisions are all randomly awarded but that random pick some how makes all of the best of the best in Galileo. After this qualifying match the “winningest” teams pick their alliances for the division finals. The wining alliance from each of the three divisions, Galileo, Curie, and Newton go and strut their stuff out on Einstein. That is the challenge of the behemoths, these teams have beat out all others in the world. That is where all of the teams want to be, Einstein is a bragging right above all others in this world, the world that NPR calls “the super bowl of the nerds”.
Today could make all of the difference in the world in getting sponsors and notoriety. Your robot can’t get its act together though; it smashes in to the metal pyramid that it will attempt to scale later in the cooption. The shooter spins up to more than 1400 rpm, the CIM motor is straining against the U channel onto which it is mounted. It is trying to get free and fly apart. This is a necessity though because of the distance that we fire from. The flying disk inches toward the wheel chair wheel and makes contact. The disk shoots out at and ungodly rate, making a game of ultimate Frisbee look like Childs play. As the disk hurtles at its final destination the motor spins down, still in one piece. The chains give a slight tinkle as the Frisbee makes its way into the 3-point goal. The crowd erupts with a communal cheer as the disk makes its landing, the robot has done it once again.
I think back a little over 10 weeks ago. The room waits for the game to be announced. We are all packed into an auditorium at Georgia Tech. A pyramid flashes up on the screen and goes back. A simple a/v goof but it is enough to make the crowd go wild. The game designer's significant others don't even know what the task is, this leads to a significant attempt at bribing our head coach, who is on the committee for making the game. These attempts are never successful, do in part to the fact that our coach made a significant sum of money in the field that he has his day job in. There are the obligatory announcements by the sponsors and every one just wants to see the game. On the way back form the kickoff the buss is full of chatter about this year's game.
A voice cuts through my daydream, the match score is announced and it turns out that we lost by 3 points. That’s not bad I ponder as my brain begins to travel again.
The robot starts to take form in the dinky little workshop that global dynamics calls home. The plain cinderblock walls and 100 dollar tools doesn’t say 50k budget, but it is better than building in a persons home. The frame perimeter starts to take form out of aluminum on the floor; the sides are custom designed by a team member and are water cut out of ¼ inch aluminum plate. There is a massive pneumatic system going together on a workbench as well. However, while the robot was coming together my life was coming apart.
I had been neglecting all of the schoolwork that was assigned to me for quite some time so I could devote all of my time to either building this robot or thinking about building this robot. This dropped my grades significantly and made for some unpleasant talks with teachers. I had been able to hold it all in one piece for a while but then a report card came in the mail. This was a wakeup call for my parents that I didn’t really want them to have. I would have been ok with letting life take its course. My parents on the other hand were none too pleased. My parents immediately banned me from attending robotics meetings, and if I had any prior social engagements, they were promptly canceled. I was able to get back on track a few times but, this quickly proved to be the exception to the rule. This lead to my nonattendance to the state competition where we became the team to beat in our region and ended up making our way all the to the top of the ranks. The team was going to pay for a select group of members to attend world, the only cost to the student was to be the breakfast and lunch each day in the city. When the list came up as to who was attending, my name was not on it.
This was devastating. There was a mix of feelings, mostly it was the feeling of betrayal, but there was some anger mixed in. I felt like I did far more work than a significant number of people on the list and that my contributions were not considered to be as helpful as the (unknown to me) contributions that these other students had made. I was also quite angry that I had let my ego get the better of me and for not doing the work that was needed to get me off the bench and onto the build team. I then decided to write up a resignation letter for the team and quit the robotics field forever.
The bus pulls out of the upper parking lot. My best friend and myself are both on board with a fresh supply of business cards so that we might make an impression on all of the recruiters that are in attendance. I can’t believe it; I got back on the list by going into the coach’s room to turn in my resignation. To my surprise he gave me the wonderful news that I was on the list for St. Lewis. I never mentioned the letter to him. In fact as I look back on it from my noisy seat in the stadium, I never told a soul about it.
In the midst of all of the trials and tribulations I decide that I really do want to spend my life in the field of robotics. It is always a different kind of problem that must be solved. Before this point I always wanted to work in nano-robots. While these sound similar, nano-robotics is a fledgling field that hasn’t really figured out what its building blocks are going to be. Robotics is a far more established field however, there are plenty of grand problems left to solve. This is a field that I can make a difference in, however it has also grown out of its infancy to the point that the parts are fairly standard.