Mavericks Revel in Return of Robot Season

Mavericks Revel in Return of Robot Season

September means back to school and that brings with it the start of many organized sports around Our Lakes for young and old alike.

Especially with more leagues set to open up again this year after a quiet 2020 thanks to COVID, now is a great time to socialize while challenging our minds and bodies.

One sport you likely hadn’t considered for your family is the exciting world of competitive robot engineering.

Teams of young people raise funds, design, build and operate robots in leagues run by a global organization with an acronym for a name: FIRST – For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.

In their well-equipped home base at 178 Railway Street (originally developed in the latter half of the 1960s by then Kingston innovators Graves Brothers Ltd.) the Machine Mavericks are looking forward to getting back to machining aluminum, programing code, sewing bumpers, creating business plans, and designing some of the coolest custom robots you’re likely to find – at least around Our Lakes anyway.

“At the beginning of each year, a new game and playing field is released that marks the beginning of the build season. Teams have a little under two months to design, build, and test their robots, and competitions begin around the world in late February and early March,” explained Charlotte, a high school aged competitor entering her fourth year with the Mavericks. “Since the very beginning it’s been an incredibly rewarding experience for me. I think the best part is that everyone on the team is here to learn. Even though the looming competition season puts significant pressure on the team to engineer the most capable robot possible, we don’t lose sight of the broader goal of cultivating a deep understanding of robotics, and the interpersonal skills that facilitate effective teamwork.”

In each game, six teams compete for two and a half minutes, she explained. They are divided into two alliances of three teams each.

“Teams within each alliance collaborate to carry out precise tasks that are specific to each season’s game, such as firing foam balls into various targets, placing large boxes or discs carefully into specific zones, and defending fellow alliance members from other teams’ offense tactics,” added Charlotte.

Within FIRST’s world of gears and gadgetry, things are actually streamed in three tiers: FLL, FIRST Lego League, is for kids aged 4-16 (the upper end of this range varies by country); FTC, FIRST Tech Challenge, is new to this area and aimed at young people aged 12-18; and, FRC, FIRST Robotics Competition, for high school students aged 14-18.

In the case of the Mavericks and Charlotte, they play in the FRC big leagues where most robots weigh upwards of 110 pounds and the playing field is a little smaller than an average tennis court. It looks a little like an American Gladiators stadium.

“Points are awarded throughout each match to produce one winning alliance, and each team on the winning alliance will move up in the overall competition rankings. The higher your ranking, the more likely you are to be picked by others to compete in the final series of matches which determine an event winner. The highest ranked teams in Ontario qualify for the Provincial Championships, and a select group from this event are invited to the World Championships.”

Her fellow competitor and Mavericks team co-founder Olivia O’Driscoll, 17, is a student at Leahurst College High School.

“My favourite part is working alongside such great people like industry experts who volunteer their time as mentors or teammates whom I would never have met outside of robotics,” she said. “It has helped me think in new ways and helped me to be open to even the craziest of ideas.”

She explained that each game begins with a similar challenge. “Our robot has to operate by itself for the first 15 seconds of every two-and-a-half-minute match. After those 15 seconds, a human driver intervenes for the rest of the match.” Winning can take the form of the obvious – scoring the most points – but that’s not the only way to earn top honours. “There are awards given out at every tournament for things like community engagement, engineering excellence, safety, and more. The overall tournament winners are the three teams who won the most matches together in the elimination rounds. It sounds corny, but I would argue that everyone who participates in the program is a winner for just having learned so much along the way. After all, that will stick with you longer than any trophy or medal.”

Her niche on the team is in programming. “I’ve been really fortunate to work with a local engineer to develop a lot of our robot’s code. It’s a lot of late nights, but the time flies.” The work is fun and she has a real interest in it for the future as well. “I plan on studying software engineering. Of course, technology changes very quickly, so it’s entirely possible that whatever I end up doing as a career doesn’t even exist now. Nonetheless, I am currently interested in machine learning and the possibilities on that front.”

In Charlotte’s case, FRC is about something else entirely. “So much work goes on behind the scenes of a robotics team that doesn’t even directly involve the creation of the robot; teams are responsible for fundraising, recruiting, branding, and publicizing for their team, as well as engaging in other levels of FIRST Robotics such as FIRST LEGO League robotics. I really enjoy the media design aspect of the Mavericks’ outreach effort, where I design promotional materials like videos and flyers. At competitions, I have had so much fun being a part of the five-person drive team who control the robot during matches, and I also enjoy mentoring one of our younger LEGO robotics teams.”

Mentoring is a key component of FIRST’s programs at all levels, on all teams. The Mavericks are no exception.

“My family was first introduced to the FIRST programs when my son joined a homeschool FLL team six years ago. After that first year, we were hooked,” said mentor Melanie Glassford. “I’ve been coaching FLL teams for three years prior to COVID and mentoring with the #7480 Machine Mavericks FRC team since we moved to Kingston in 2018. Prior to that, I was a parent mentor on #2702 Rebels FRC team in Kitchener.”

The Mavericks currently have 14 student participants (although 20 is the historical norm) and they are working to grow that number. They are supported by nine adult mentors and several student mentors who have graduated out of the program but come back to support the team. Being a homeschooler for the past 11 years, Glassford has enjoyed how FIRST has allowed both she and her children to pick up a wide range of skill sets.

“When my family and I moved here we found all the FRC teams were made up of amazing mentors and students. We decided to join Machine Mavericks because we were impressed with not only their gender parity initiative, but that they just finished their very first year running and made it to the World Championships. Doing so requires a spirit of passion, humility, perseverance, and support of one another. As a family, we felt we could grow and help out most on the Machine Mavericks.”

FIRST is a little different than most organized youth sports where players are generally assigned to teams based on some pre-set criteria. In all three levels, players are free to join any team that wants them, which also means teams must actively recruit new players and mentors to build their squad and rebuild it as people graduate and move on. In the case of the Mavericks, when O’Driscoll and her teammate formed the team they decided it would always strive for gender parity. “The idea that robotics is a boys thing was always foreign to me,” she said, adding there’s no difference between boys and girls are capable of achieving. They may communicate, learn and react differently to various situations, but having both on the Mavericks in a benefit, she insisted. “Both have strengths they bring to the team.”

It’s that level of leadership and understanding that help make the Mavericks such a powerhouse.

“It’s hard not to be inspired by them and looking back we realize that the kids we’ve known through these programs are really the kids that are going to create the world of the future as they move forward in life,” said Glassford. “I feel so honoured to be a part of it. I also love that we can participate as a family and build on our relationships at the same time. No one is left out.” 

The challenge of FRC can be a bit much for kids joining for the first time, but at the same time Lego League is often dominated by the very young. This year, FIRST addressed that issue in Canada with the rollout of the intermediate FTC. The Mavericks have created what will hopefully be a feeder team for them in the future, appropriately naming it the Futuristics. They’ve even gone the extra mile to help get competition going locally at this level.

“In the new FTC team #18158 The Futuristics we have five students and are looking for three girls to balance out our team for this year,” said Glassford. “Because of how new this program is to Canada it’s really important to get the word out. Anyone can start a team. If we have enough teams in the area we can have a tournament in Kingston. This would be amazing. I have free video training and FTC kits to help new teams get started.”

These $1,500 materials kits – available free to the first four area teams to register for the season – include everything an FTC team needs to get started and serve as a great introduction to new players and mentors. “The robot from this kit can be built with Allen keys. As the team gains experience other custom parts are able to be added depending on what the team wants to focus on,” said Glassford, adding new teams would still need to raise a little money over the course of the first season but because the robot components can all be reused season after season, the costs go down dramatically after the first year. 

Starting teams at the FLL and FTC levels is easy. To register a team, you go to firstinspires.org and follow the links to start a team. In both, you can have as few as two students and they both have maximums (FLL: max 10; FTC: max 15). Many teams in both these programs can be run out of a garage or basement in your home. “These teams can be run through schools, community centers, friends and family that want to do things together. There is no wrong way to participate,” she said. “The time commitment is about four to six hours per week for the students and for a new coach about eight hours. This difference is just to get to know the program. There is a lot of support available from FIRST as well as all FRC teams.”

There is a strong emphasis on community and collaboration within FIRST and all teams are always willing to help people new to the programs. “FRC teams take a lot more effort to run but it’s totally worth it. There are three FRC teams in the Kingston area. There is always room for more.”

The three FRC teams include #2708 Lake Effect Robotics http://lakeeffectrobotics.ca/ and #4476 W.A.F.F.L.E.S. https://www.wafflesrobotics.com/, along with the afore mentioned #7480 Machine Mavericks https://www.machinemavericks.com/.

“All have competed at FIRST World Championships and have many well-deserved awards,” said Glassford.

Last season got turned on its ear for obvious reasons, although there was a silver lining for the Machine Mavericks – or rather a golden lining. The FRC went virtual and in doing so it borrowed a wrinkle from its FLL cousins adding a community-based challenge, last year’s theme was health and wellness.

The Mavericks’ AquaCue invention was crowned World Champion in the Business Model Award category. A system employing a series of sensors to allow blind people to swim laps in a pool without assistance from anyone else, their product was even recognized with the Mayor’s Innovation Award and has been granted a provisional patent.

That success doesn’t automatically transfer from one year to the next for a team, all of the Maverick faithful caution. “Lake Effect won the World Championship and they struggled the next year,” concluded O’Driscoll, again encouraging any interested young people to come out and give it a try. “We have team members who don’t prioritize the robot at all … It’s really a sport where everyone playing can go pro.”

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