ROGERSVILLE — Like any well coached team, Cherokee High School’s “Fellowship of the Springs” robotics team has been studying video of their competitors, looking for an edge.
There have already been a handful of FIRST Robotics-sanctioned competitions leading up to the Smoky Mountain Regionals, which begins Thursday in Knoxville.
By watching video from earlier competitions, the Springs have learned what many teams are doing to gain an advantage.
FIRST Robotics presented teams with a completely different set of challenges in its competition arena this year. Robots will have to be able to shoot balls, load gear-shaped objects onto a spike and climb a rope.
What the video is revealing, however, is that most teams are skipping the ball-shooting element completely and focusing mainly on collecting “gears” because they’re worth more points.
That’s a shame for the Springs because the ball-shooting skills of their robot are almost spot-on.
The team put on a demonstration Tuesday afternoon, shooting balls into a goal built to the same scale it will face in the Knoxville arena. The Springs filled the goal and had only a few stray misses.
Although it appears that winning teams are focused mainly on the gear-collecting element of the game, senior Raiden Evans said the Springs probably aren’t going to abandon ball-shooting altogether.
“That might be something that sets us apart because we are able to do that decently,” Evans said. “We didn’t come up with some system that was 100 balls per second, and that’s the way we were going to win. But we do have a system that works pretty well. It fills (the goal) up.”
Evans added, “The balls aren’t worth nearly as much as the gears, which I feel is a little unbalanced for the point system this year. And a lot of teams have adjusted to just run gears. But I’ve noticed some teams — they know they can’t get enough gears to get more points — they’ll sit around and wait for the final end game. But we can do, instead of waiting around for the final rope climb, we can actually go around and get the last few points just from shooting.”
There’s a lot at stake for the Springs this weekend, and they’ll need every point they can gather.
Since January, they’ve spent thousands of man-hours building a brand new robot with one goal in mind. Returning to the World Championships in St. Louis.
Team coach and faculty advisor Jeff Hobbs said there’s really only one way to earn that invitation to St. Louis, and that’s to walk away from Knoxville with a victory.
“Knoxville is the only event we can afford to go to,” Hobbs said. “Other schools go to multiple venues, which gives them multiple chances to win. You win at one, you get to go to Worlds. We’re one and done, so we’ve just got the one shot.”
Last year, Cherokee’s team was part of an alliance that made it to the finals and finished second.
Although the Springs didn’t earn an automatic bid to the World Championships in St. Louis through a victory, they did do well enough to be noticed by a winning team that had already earned its trip to the Worlds through a previous victory. That team gave the invitation it earned in Knoxville to Cherokee as a wildcard.
“You can’t count on a wildcard,” Hobbs said. “Maybe there’s one wildcard per regional or district match. We’ve got to win if we’re going to Worlds.”
Tuesday afternoon the team went through one more practice session before packing up for Knoxville.
The Springs’ robot is an extremely sophisticated machine.
The gear placement system and the ball-shooting system both have vision tracking systems that team drivers aim using remote video cameras on the robot.
And that wasn’t even their biggest challenge in building the robot.
The biggest challenge was creating a large ball scooper and container that can suck balls off the floor like a vacuum cleaner but won’t get jammed while moving the balls toward the shooter.
“If you’re going to shoot balls, you need a big containing system,” Evans said. “But other than that you also need to have a system that is able to sift through and organize all the balls before it goes into the shooter. We had to come up with a system that was able to do that. Even our system occasionally gets jammed, and it has to be reversed to get unjammed, but that’s pretty rare. That was something that I had to prototype a lot.”
Based on what they’re seeing of the competition on video, the Springs feel they’ve got a robot capable of winning.
“As long as we can get the vision tracking calibrated for the field, I think we’re going to be pretty good,” Evans added. “I noticed a lot of teams were having issues. Gears are the main way to go. We’re able to line up the gears properly with our auto alignment system. I think we’re in pretty good shape.”
On Wednesday, the Springs will drop their robot off at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, and Thursday is an all-day practice and inspection session.
Qualification rounds begin Friday morning and extend into Saturday morning. The finals will begin Saturday afternoon.