Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Pillbox Fill: An Idea for the 2013 FIRST Robotics Competition

Sunken Wreck II (Tasmania)
This last weekend, I had the good fortune to attend my very first robotics competition to watch my niece's team compete in the Rebound Rumble.  They didn't do so well (sorry K!).  But, I was struck by a couple of things -- although the teams are competing, there is more of a friendly rivalry here than, well, hmm, how to put this?  A high school football league in any state  (but then again, football is a sport where some pro teams pay a bonus for inflicting injury and so maybe that is not a a fair comparison).

These teams actually help each other out in the pit (this is where robots go between competitions) and the game always has a cooperation element built into it where individual teams have to work together to achieve a common goal.  The teams compete in alliances of three teams and within the game there is a game where opposing alliances can cooperate to earn more points.  This is all pretty good if you ask me.  Even better is that in a 64 team tournament, opposing teams (and their supporters) stay through the final rounds and cheer on the other teams.

Abandoned Farm Equipment (Kangaroo Island)
The second thing that struck me -- and K's aunt Lisa (sister o' my sister-in-law) was that one could maybe build the challenges around the activities of daily living (ADLs) that many older adults need assistance with.  ADLs are things like bathing, eating, dressing.  We launched into an animated discussion of transfers (and yes, we talked about wheelchair to commode transfers).   We plotted how theming the games on something like this would give a social context to the activity -- and given all the work that is going on in assistive technology it certainly would attract different stakeholders into the mix.  I was so excited that I even launched an inquiry on Facebook and got some feedback there from my friend Bridget.  But,  after talking to my brother (a robotics mentor to K's team) the next day,  it all seemed a little too complicated to pull off -- at least within the ADL frame.

My little brain has been ruminating on this ever since.  If you visit the FIRST Robotics site (which I did because I am obsessive), you'll see there are certain static elements to this annual competition:

  • It's 135 seconds long
  • Robots need to do something independently of drivers for 15 of those seconds
  • Alliances are composed of three robotic teams cooperating together to score points.  In the 2012 games, they scored points by making baskets on a playing field set up to look like a basketball court.
  • There is a second task that alliances can earn points for -- in the 2012 games, that was  balancing a robot OR robots on a swinging bridge (and this was where one could earn points by cooperating with the opposing team);
  • Teams have an even playing field in that they must use only the parts that are sent to them in early January to build their robots.
  • It's usually got a pretty fun name -- Lunacy is perhaps my favorite of these.
Tasmanian Ruins
Seems pretty simple, eh?  Well, on top of all the technical elements, one needs to layer in the showmanship.  At the event I attended, the MC was sporting a multi-colored mohawk and romping around the playing field as he called the match.  There was line dancing going on in the aisles (until the fire marshals put an end to that) and every team had a fully costumed mascot.  Teams had t-shirts and our team had handmade placards for us to wave when they were on the floor (maybe that was it, we weren't waving our placards hard enough?!).  There was a lot of cheering going on, that was for sure.

As I was mulling all this over, I began to think that I needed to stop thinking about building a game that focused on activities of daily living and how robots can be deployed to assist with these.  That would be to hard to do (robots buttoning things?  robots feeding robots?)  and maybe wouldn't have all that much entertainment value.  Rather, maybe Dean Kamen and his team might consider creating a competition that focuses on raising awareness of some of things that are common issues for many an older person.  His company was, after all, the genius behind the iBot -- a most amazing wheelchair that has (sadly) been discontinued.  

What's not to like about a competition that nurtures engineers and scientists AND raises intergenerational awareness at the same time?  Plus, leave us face it -- assistive technologies are going to be a growth industry as the baby boomers age.  This could be a good way to get all those budding engineers and scientists out there thinking about technology solving the challenges of aging.

Broken Shells (Qualia, Hamilton Island)
Here are three things that older adults often struggle with that could inform the design of a competition:  
  • Organizing our daily medicines and vitamins
  • Limitations on our mobility; and
  • Transferring from bed to chair (or elsewhere).
This is a pretty progressive list -- one can imagine someone in their 50s having a pill box (I don't but I should) and not having mobility limitations until later in life with the need for assistance with transfers coming very late in life.  I am sure there are other things that could be on this list -- it's just something to get the creative juices of those engineers who design this annual competition started on thinking about the learning opportunities inherent in building a social issue frame around the technical challenge of building a competitive robot.  

So here is the competition I would like to see in 2013.  I am sure that the folks at FIRST robotics could improve on this game -- they are the engineers and scientists and I am the English major after all.  It's just a little something to get them started thinking.  And, now, like my niece and my brother, I'll be looking forward to seeing what's in the box at the start of the 2013 FIRST robotics competition.  That is, unless they call me in to advise on how to tackle this grand challenge I've set out for them!

Nose Job (Kangaroo Island)
Pillbox Fill

Playing Pieces
Pill shaped (both capsule (red and white) and round (blue)

The Field
The field is designed to mimic a small apartment.  It is covered in Glasline FRP and the robots have special modified wheels that teams can not change giving reduced traction, mimicking the effect of arthritic joints as would be seen in an older adult.  At both ends are the driver stations and seven plexiglass square boxes marked with the days of the week (S, M, T, W, Th, F, Sa).  The boxes are set with two high and outside, two low and outside, and three connected together at middle height.

Along the middle of the field are three platforms each with two hospital beds sized for 18" dolls,  one of which is occupied by a doll (an American Girl doll would fit the bill nicely here -- I wonder if they would donate them?)

Game Objective
The primary objective of the game is to get pills/capsules into the Plexiglas boxes.

Match Time
Autonomous (first 15 seconds).  The robot tries to score white capsules into the plexiglass boxes.

Teleoperated (120 seconds)  Humans drive their robots around the field, trying to score points using red capsules and blue pills.

Transfer Mania:  At any point in the match, two robots can cooperate to transfer an 18” doll from one hospital bed to the other.  The middle podium is for robots from opposing alliances to work together on the transfer.  
Stamens (Hollywood B&B, Los Angeles, CA)

Based on my read of the scoring for previous competitions, I think the scoring might look something like this:

3 points for each pill/capsule in the top boxes
2 points for each pill/capsule in the middle boxes
1 point for each pill/capsule in the lower boxes

5 points for each transfer by robots from the same Alliance (maximum of 2 transfers per Alliance)
5 points for each cooperating Alliance transfer (and 2 points for trying a transfer even if the teams are unsuccessful

There's a lot more to all of this but I think this outline is enough of a start for now.  Let the 2013 robotics competition focused on meeting the challenges of an aging world population begin!

Oh Those Coronado Waves - Just Can't Get Enough!


  1. So what happened to the FIRST robotics idea ?? Any winners?

  2. I'd like to say that the 2013 season in Lego League was due to me -- -- but who knows. nancy