College Challenges Emerge—Community Thrives
The Vex Robotics Competition is one of the fastest rising competitive robotics sector around the world, and is now open to college-level students who will be attending the second annual VEX Robotics World Championship to be held at the Dallas Convention Center and Arena on April 30 – May 2. We thought it would be useful to look at the number of VEX competitions worldwide, what it will take for a robot to be competitive in the current season’s Elevation competition, and at what is driving the emergence of VEX competitions in multiple educational tiers, including middle school challenges, high school challenges and college and university level challenges.
The current competition game is “Elevation”; it requires VEX robots to grab and place cubes in goals of varying heights. We will look more closely at the game, but for all the details, please visit www.robotevents.com.
The number of participants involved in VEX competitions worldwide is impressive. As we go to press:
- 90 events
- 14 countries
- 1,200 teams
VEX ROBOTICS AT RICE UNIVERSITY
Andrew Lynch has been on the cutting edge of VEX competitions, mentoring both high school and college teams with Christina Lam. He started a local VEX regional and has fostered robotics interest and growth within his community.
Andrew is a graduate student majoring in mechanical engineering and in his second year in the Ms./Ph.D. program. “I’m interested in mechanical and electrical engineering and general robotics,” he comments. He is the founding organizer of the Rice University VEX team, and he helped to organize the Houston VEX tournament. He also mentored the Lamar High School team, who produced Disco Cube and are a top performing team in Elevation.
Robot: Tell us about your involvement.
Andrew: I’ve been involved in VEX for two years. We started using the kit as a training tool, as an introduction to robotics, and in the summer of 2008, we got involved in a VEX competition. We did not have a lot of luck finding local high school and college-level teams.
When we spoke to Jason Morrella,educational outreach manager (firstname.lastname@example.org) for Innovation First, Inc. (IFI), he indicated it would be simple to start a competition. The Lamar High School students and I decided to start one in Houston to create a VEX regional. We did, and our high school team qualified for the World Championship. Later, I started a team at Rice.
Robot: How does a team enter the college competition, and what are the requirements?
Andrew: Any college team can participate. The college championship is new—IFI invited a few dozen colleges and universities to compete—but any college or university is eligible to participate. If you go to www.robotevents.com, there’s a link for the VEX College Challenge, and from there, you can register and sign up. A few slots are probably still open, and I think we expect at least a couple of dozen teams—possibly more.
Robot: What makes team Disco Cube competitive in Elevation?
Andrew: In Elevation, 3-inch foam cubes must be deposited in triangular prisms, or “goals.” There are two robots on a red team and two on a blue team. The goals are of different sizes—the top one is 21 inches high—yet the robot itself must be small enough to fit into an 18-inch cube. The robot continues to stack the cubes in the goal until they are balanced on top of each other. Other robots can interfere at any point in time and knock down the competing team’s stack of cubes, descoring its oppoents.
Each robot can start with two cubes in autonomous mode. Your robot needs to deposit these into a goal. Not all teams compete in autonomous mode, so doing so gives you an edge. Disco Cube first deposits two cubes and then picks up four more and tries to place them in other goals. It uses an encoder to position itself where the cubes and goals are. It knows which goal it is going to and has another sensor—a potentiometer to raise its arm to the desired angle and height. With proper encoder tracking, it executes these planned maneuvers—a choreographed routine.
Disco Cube also has a 4-cube loading capability that makes it competitive; some can load only 2 or 3. We used basic testing to ensure that the cubes never jam, and we did lots of redesign. We repeatedly tested all of its features, including its pushing ability, for blocking and running interference and torque.
Robot: Which programming environment do you use?
Andrew: We tried a few options for programming VEX and felt that RobotC was well suited to high school students. Our college students use MP Lab from VEX. You can buy three different programming environments from VEX—these and EasyC.
Robot: Why is VEX appealing at the college level?
Andrew: Whether you are talking about high school or college students, VEX competition is an opportunity to see system-level engineering—the integration of mechanical and electrical engineering and computer science. For this reason, VEX is exploding onto the college scene. I have been involved in robot competitions for quite a few years. There are lots of robotics options for high schools, but colleges have fewer, and they are often quite difficult. VEX has a broad appeal that draws college students into engineering.
Robot: Tell us a little about your high school VEX competition initiatives.
Andrew: Lamar’s two teams—roughly 30 kids—are part of the high school, and I’m a head mentor for both teams. Just one team at Rice with a dozen students involved.
Robot: Thanks for the interview.
Andrew: My pleasure.
ROBOT: Disco Cube A-Team, Lamar High School
DIMENSIONS: 18x18x18 in.
SPEED: 1.5 ft./sec
CUBE INTAKE CAPACITY: 4
PROCESSOR: PIC 18F (VEX Robot Controller)
SENSORS: VEX Quadrature Encoders for distance tracking (closed-loop encoder positioning); VEX potentiometer for arm positioning (closed-loop positioning); VEX Limit Switch for testing modes
POWER: VEX 7.2V Ni-Cd battery
SOFTWARE: RobotC programming
DRIVE: Tank drive w/2 VEX motors geared 1:1 by chain/sprocket w/4-in. VEX wheels
ARM DESIGN: The arm uses latex tubing to help the two Vex motors to lift the arm under load
AUTONOMOUS: Scores 2 cubes and collects cubes from the ground and attempts to score on other goals
COMMENTS: During “autonomous,” the Lamar High School team won the Houston VEX Regional and the Programming Skills Challenge. Mentors include Andrew Lynch and Christina Lam.
‘IOLANI TEAM LOBOTICS TRIUMPHS AT PAN-PACIFIC CHAMPS
To get another perspective from a highly competitive team that will compete at the VEX High School/Middle School World Championship competition in Dallas, we contacted Lara Lee, who is a biology and math teacher at the ’Iolani K-12 Independent School in Hawaii. The lolani School ’Lobotics Team were part of a three-team alliance that also included two from the California Academy of Math and Science; together, they recently took top honors in the VEX Robotics Pan-Pacific Championship in Hawaii.
Robot: How many mentors participated in the ’Iolani Intermediate School competition?
Lara: Two mentors this year—me and Jeff Malins, engineer and computer program-mer, and an ’Iolani alumnus.
Robot: We understand that VEX robotics has grown rapidly in your community; can you explain why?
Lara: I’d say it is due to a collection of factors happening at the same time. First, we have strong state support from our Governor’s office for STEM and robotics in particular; second, NASA and BAE mone-tary support for FIRST Robotics Competition [FRC]. This was an indirect boost because a lot of schools started in VEX as a training ground for FRC. Finally, the financial and technical accessi-bility of VEX has helped its growth. For much less money, stu-dents can have a robotics design, build and competition experience that is very similar to FRC in many ways. In fact, since VEX is a kit build, learning to build and program the robot and manage a compe-tition build season is doable by the students themselves. This year, because we had experi-enced student captains, the students managed the design and build processes themselves with only mini-mal help from adult men-tors. I really liked this because when they won this year, it was truly their own achievement. This year’s VEX competition was a student-run/student-built event. It is a great program!
Robot: Can you pinpoint why your team’s VEX design is as competitive as it turned out to be?
Lara: I’ll let team captains Lauren Faris, Sean Cockey and and Mark Williams comment: “Our robot was competitive because our design was simple and robust, so other robots could not push it around. It could also acquire and deposit cubes quickly in all the goals. We had an effec-tive autonomous program, giving us an edge over the other alliances. Also, our dri-ver was very skilled. The most important aspects of the game were owning goals and the autonomous program because they gave extra points. To own goals, timing and the ability to score goals were crucial. The autonomous portion helped by giving us bonus points and made sure the round started off on a good note.”
Robot: Thanks for the interview.
Lara: Thanks for including us!
www.robotevents.com, (903) 453-0800
VEX Robotics Design System
www.vexrobotics.com, (903) 453-0800