On Kickoff

Well, it’s been a while since I’ve sat down to write one of these. Lots of things going on, both on the FRC team and at home. All good things to be sure! Just lots of them.

With most of the normal-people holidays behind us, our thoughts turn toward that long-awaited robotics holiday: Kickoff.

That magical day when we all sit down, watch a video broadcast with strong anticipation, and then get to work for six(ish) weeks. It’s a key moment in the season - the pressure is on to learn a new game, make decisions, and choose solutions which will impact how the rest of the season goes.

There’s a fine balance to thinking quickly, and thinking carefully. Too much of either, and you’ll run out of time, or pigeonhole your design. Achieving that balance is often an exercise in simply having experience. However, even if this is only your first or second time around, there are some things you can do to help yourself along.

Some Unorganized Thoughts on Starting your Season

Assess your Understanding, Effectively

The first thing you should be doing every year is learning about the new game. How is it played? How is it best played? Effective learning is the groundwork to building an effective robot.

A key component to learning is the ability to confirm that, yes, you did actually learn something. In a formal learning environment, like school, this is done through assessments - your homework, quizzes, tests, etc. They fall into two large categories: Summative and Formative.

Formative assessments are ones which require you to form new associations between things you know already - and therefore learn new things. For example, a homework problem putting together two equations that were always considered separately.

Summative assessments focus more on checking that you simply know the things you should already know. Think regurgitation, like recalling the meaning of a vocab word.

Both should be employed as you learn about the game. You’ll want to use some form of summative assessment to check your basic comprehension of the game. Then, you’ll want to do some experimental formative assessment as you combine parts of the manual into a well-defined game and design strategy.

Doing any sort of self assessment is really hard for one simple reason: you don’t know what you don’t know.

The quiz that Citrus Circuits puts out every year on the rulebook is a really good summative assessment. You can use it for just yourself, but even better if you can drag some members of your team along with you.

Perusing the FIRST official Q&A system, as well as the flurry of posts on ChiefDelphi can also help. You can see the questions others have, and evaluate how well you could answer them yourself. Some will have straightforward answers, others not. It can be a good gauge to see if you’re thinking about the problem similarly to others or not.

Watch Robot in 3 Days

If you’re not familiar, a number of organizations run what is called “Robot in Three Days” (Ri3D). It’s…. quite literally what it says on the cover. Right as the rules are released, teams start designing and building. They usually have parts on hand already, and use as much off-the-shelf as possible. The goal is rapid prototyping and thorough documentation of the results. Within 3 days, hopefully a functional robot is produced.

The documentation they produce is a super valuable tool. It’s the early data to show what is going to be easy, and what is going to be hard.

Obviously, you don’t have to wait until they’re done to start your strategy and design.

The results of the robot in 3 days should be considered a guideline. If a team was able to create something in 3 days, surely you should be able to make it in 6 (or more) weeks. You can probably do more too! Just use the Ri3D designs as a reference point for judging whether your design is too advanced, or too simple. Seeing what the Ri3D teams do is a bit of an assessment of sorts - it provides a check on day 3, in both a summative and formative way, of ensuring your thought process is well-aligned to playing the game well.

As a side note - I think there’s no shame in just building a Ri3D bot verbatim. There’s a ton of awesome people doing awesome design on these things - professionals, really. Take their knowledge, use it the best you can! The vast majority of Ri3D bots make excellent 3rd-robot alliance partners at most regionals, if not better. If you can take a design, build it up in two weeks, and then have four weeks to do driver practice, autonomous development, and maybe a mechanism improvement or two, well…. That sounds like a successful season to me!

Of course, this isn’t to discourage innovation, but rather meant to extend something Karthik Kanagasabapathy talks about a lot - focus on robots that can do a few things really well, building within your means. If design and strategy aren’t your team’s strong suits, then build a robot with a proven design around a good game strategy, and focus your efforts elsewhere.

Start with a Schedule

Set your deadlines early, set them often. It seems obvious, but takes discipline beyond what many teams expect. The reason is to ensure you aren’t rushing at the end. Rushing leads to cut corners, and therefor lower performance overall. Building fast is good, building rushed is bad.

The best way I know to avoid this is to establish a schedule, and stick to it. Even if that means pulling late nights in week 1 to get CAD done, do it! There’s mechanical, electrical, programming, and drive teams that need the results of your work, and taking the attitude of “there’s six weeks, no need to worry” won’t work out all that well.

Gantt Charts are one of my favorite ways of organizing these schedules, and making the impact of slipping a date very visible. Detailed is usually better than vague, but you do have to be careful. If the schedule gets too detailed or complicated, you suddenly find your full time job is maintaining schedule documentation, rather than actually building a robot.

You’ll definitely want to use a tool to do this, rather than re-drawing a picture every time the schedule changes. OpenChart is a pretty decent option. A few options with Google Sheets also exist.

Make Kickoff part of Team Succession Planning

There will come a time when the team will have to function without you present. No matter how young you think you are, and no matter what your role is, I will always stand behind that axiom.

Due to this, it’s important to ensure the new students and mentors who come in are properly…. indoctrinated (for lack of a better word)… into the culture that is FIRST. Part of that is the team bonding and excitement that should surround every kickoff event.

Get excited! Ensure the people leading conversations have enthusiasm, bring out unique ideas and perspectives, and build consensus when it’s time to decide something. Make sure every individual has happy, positive experiences associated with the frenzy that is kickoff.

Have some food! Play some games together. Take breaks as appropriate. Leaders should be very willing to demonstrate that “having fun” is a critical component to the team acting as, well, a team. Go out to eat, or meet up in a casual setting, all as appropriate.

Try to ensure everyone is included, but also keep in mind not everyone will want to spend every waking hour thinking about robots - respect both camps, and you’ll ensure that you have a steady supply of workforce to power the team in future years.

Conclusion

Well, that’s all that’s on my mind for now. I hope I’ll be able to keep up at least a few short posts here and there throughout the season, though I suspect my focus will shift more to ChiefDelphi and working with my team. We’ll see.

In conclusion, have fun! Best of luck this season! I do hope to run into you at Detroit!