A small, brand-new FIRST Robotics team finds surprising success, with some surprising components

  • Members of FIRST Robotics Team Morpheus, including mentor Dana Stark (left), Daler King, Srilekha Nuli and Nick Gagne, talk about their experiences at the FIRST Championship from their garage workshop in Concord. ELIZABETH FRANTZ photos/ Monitor staff

  • Members of FIRST Robotics Team Morpheus made it to the finals at the world championship in St. Louis. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Will Spear (left) talks about the modified wheels his robotics team used.

Monitor staff
Published: 5/6/2016 12:08:32 AM

When a brand-new team – and one with fewer players than normal, to boot – gets within shouting distance of winning a national championship, you know it must have started with a lot of experience.

Or maybe not, at least not when you’re talking about the FIRST Robotics Competition.

“Before I started FRC, I didn’t even know how to use a hand drill,” admitted Srilekha Nuli, a Concord High School 11th-grader who is one of just five teens who made up Team Morpheus, an eclectic FIRST Robotics group based in a Concord garage with no school affiliation. It made it to the finals at the world championship in St. Louis, putting it in roughly the top 2 percent of FIRST Robotics teams worldwide.

Nuli, who’s more of a mathematics fan than a workshop fan, says she picked up drill usage along with a variety of other electronics, mechanical and software skills because there wasn’t much choice, which was fine with her.

“If there was a task to be done, it was: ‘Who wants to learn how to do this?’ ” she said. “That’s fun.”

Learning via trial and error is one of the key elements of FIRST, which was founded in 2002 by New Hampshire inventor Dean Kamen, who wanted to bring the pleasures of organized sports to engineering and technology. The annual contest creates a game to be played by remote-controlled robots on a tennis court-sized field. It often involves shooting balls, stacking things and moving around obstacles; prizes and praise come not just for technical accomplishment but also for overall behavior, including “gracious professionalism” in which sharing is as common as competing.

In FIRST, teams of high schoolers decide what sort of robot might do best at the game and try to build one in time for regional and national competitions. This means they not only have to design, build and maintain a robot in a competitive environment – which, in the case of Team Morpheus, involved a strategic bit of surgical tubing to fix an apparent software failure – but also join other groups to create three-team alliances on the fly, a skill that comes in handy in the adult workplace.

It has become very popular, with more than 4,000 teams worldwide, including at least 42 in New Hampshire, and the number of adults who volunteer is probably in six figures – but it’s still not football as far as the general population is concerned.

Nuli remembers being in class when Concord High School’s FIRST team came up during morning announcements at school.

“They talked about it, showed a video on morning announcements, and no one had any idea what it is,” she said. She ended up becoming a spontaneous FIRST ambassador, talking to the class about the event.

Team Morpheus (named partly for the Greek god of dreams and partly for the character from The Matrix franchise) is the creation of Sukhvinder Kang, CTO of Aavid Thermalloy, which has a huge facility in Laconia. His enthusiasm has led him and his wife, Lynn, to turn a garage at their Auburn Street home into a FIRST workshop, with some tools (“We found you can build a pretty good robot with a chop saw and a drill press,” said Will Spear, an 11th-grader from Parker Academy in Concord) and space for brainstorming and designing via CAD software on laptops galore.

The team includes their 11th-grade son Daler and 10th-grader Nick Gagne of Weare, both homeschooled, and “Lizzy” Matillano, an 11th-grader at Concord High. Many live nearby and knew each other through FIRST Lego League, a similar competition involving small robots built from the interlocking plastic bricks, so they were easy to enroll.

Sharing among competitors is part of FIRST’s mantra, and Morpheus benefited from the St. Paul’s School team, which had a test field where obstacles in this year’s castle-like game could be created for testing.

Another key to FIRST is adult mentors, often engineers or people working in construction, who guide the students. Three mentors at Morpheus work at DEKA, Dean Kamen’s research and development firm in Manchester, including B.J. Lanigan, a shop leader who graduated from Concord High School in 2002. He admits that a part of his interest in mentoring a team comes from trying to hire people for the machine shop and finding a lack of people interested in working with their hands.

“Our goal is to double the team size to 10, and start an FLL (FIRST Lego League) team . . . to be a ‘seeder team’ for us,” Lanigan said. “We’re at the point where we need to go past family and kids we know, reach out to the whole community.”

John Mannisto, a tech leader at DEKA, agrees. He’d like to see lots more FIRST teams created all over – like football teams.

“We want it to the point where at any school, you’d say, why don’t you have a team? You should have a team!” he said.

But what about that surgical tubing – how did it fix software?

The problem arose when the Morpheus robot would suddenly freeze up at random times for no obvious reason, apparently because of a software issue in the surprisingly complex control mechanism.

Software bug-hunting didn’t help, and team members said they were baffled until repeated testing made them realize that the problem came after the robot was traveling fast then stopped abruptly. That caused its vertical arms with spinning wheels at the ends – used to heave balls through castle turrets as well as raise gates in an ingeniously non-obvious application – to lurch forward. As control motors tried to compensate, they drew so much current that they caused a system brownout. The “software problem” was actually an electrical problem caused by a mechanical design flaw.

The fix? Tie some surgical tubing to the arm to keep it from lurching forward. Not very elegant looking, but successful.

“When we did that, we never had a problem again,” said Daler Kang.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek)

 




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