FRC 2018-2019 Season Blog
Updated: Jun 27, 2020
With this reflection comes the end of my time in FIRST as a student (I’m leaving the door open to mentorship some 10 odd years down the line) and although I am writing this as a college student, I still share many of the same sentiments and emotions with my “2nd semester high school senior” self. As a little hint for anyone who’s curious, YES, this was my favorite season of FRC as there was just so much personal investment into making one last push for worlds and everything was teetering between good vibes and intra-team arguments. Let’s dive in…
Ok. I know I spoiled my decision in my last blog, but I’m going to take a couple steps back because it was certainly a pivotal decision that deserves to be revisited. At the end of my second season on the team, we said goodbye to our first batch of charging champions alumni and it’s no understatement to say that they were the pillars of the team to that point. I felt burdened as an incoming senior with thoughts of being unable to shoulder the increased responsibility within the team and be a guide for newer members. I truly wanted to give future members the same excitement and joy that I was able to go through when I first joined. While it initially seemed that it would be easy to step up my dedication and time commitment to the team, life had other ideas. The summer of 2019 brought about a lot of changes and events in my life. I landed my first internship at a local power electronics company, One Cycle Control, and got to work on an exciting near-field electrospinning (NFES) 3D-printer project for the Amazon Catalyst competition in the UCI BioMEMS Lab. I made dramatic improvements as a violist as I started to tackle the Walton Viola Concerto. I got friend-zoned for the first time after confessing LOL. I made valuable mentorship connections with co-workers and some family friends. I unfortunately stopped playing golf regularly. The dreaded college application cycle had started. Yeah, it was a pretty hectic summer that further showered doubt on my future with FIRST.
Coming into our first few preseason meetings, I had already mentioned to some of my teammates that I was really considering not returning due to lack of time and fear of dropping the ball like I did the previous season. Fortunately, I decided that I would try to make things work and attended the first few preseason meetings. At this point, I was straightforward and told Coach Raj that I really didn’t know if I could commit the amount of time I wanted to. The fact that both Coach Raj and our team captain Arjun convinced me that the team would be better if I stayed really helped me to realize a valuable lesson: don’t flake out when people need you. Being back in the garage and seeing our last two robots did provide me with a spark as I recounted just how being involved in FIRST had changed my life to this point. After giving it some thought I decided that I would try to balance work, FRC, school, viola, and sleep to the best of my abilities. I wanted to go out on my own terms and have the ending to my time in FRC that I would be proud to look back on.
A new preseason meant a new batch of recruits to onboard and new responsibilities. We started our preseason considerably earlier in an attempt to get new members as comfortable with our CAD software, Autodesk Inventor (I got overruled as the only vote for Solidworks rip), and the different power tools available in the garage.
We got a new mentor, Coach Hamid, who was unarguably the MVP for our team. He really helped me develop better practices in design and manufacturing that I still hold with me today, and he was an overall chill mentor who loved to build robots.
As a senior member on the mechanical build & design team, I was drafted in to take the lead and this meant that I was constantly thinking about things beyond just the design of the various mechanical systems or mechanisms of the robot. There was meeting logistics and planning, implementation of new task management software, deciding on what the design philosophy of the robot would be and setting deadlines so that we got to our end product, major increase in procurement responsibility, balancing egos, figuring out how different subsystems would be integrated together, making sure everyone had work to do, and so on.
As you can see below, we really VALUE the safety of our members that we put them through really long safety workshops...your welcome :)
Another shoutout, this time for Coach Raj, who really took the time to help me get my “insert word” together and taught me valuable lessons for managing a team and developing a product. While I won’t say I completely lost my free time, by the time build season started, I was on the 1-6 sleep schedule on weekdays and 3-7 sleep schedule on weekends. So yeah, not really getting in my recommended 8 hours of sleep a day.
The build season was full of ups and downs (as usual). I started out being too focused on fleshing out the CAD, re-sketching designs due to minor flaws, and doing way too many irrelevant stress calculations to try and come up with a perfect robot. There were hours wasted bouncing between countless end-effector ideas and climbing mechanisms. After a good talking to by coach Raj and coach Hamid, I realized that it was time to be decisive and start making tangible progress on the actual build. After that things started to really improve as we made really good progress thanks in part to better tooling and renewed desire. And by renewed desire, I mean an intra-team competition to see who could work the latest (no I’m not kidding, somewhere buried in the team’s random channel in slack mentions this playful competition). Not trying to flex or anything, but I took the dub by working from 10 AM to 2 AM, although I do apologize to Coach Raj for having to wake him up from his nap to close the garage (forgot the garage code yikes). And on weekdays it was just as busy, after finishing work at 6-6:30 PM, I would rush over to the meeting where I would stay as late as possible to ensure everything was working. I’d like to think that this set a good image for everyone else, but at the same time, by motivating other people to stay late into the night, they got hungry and ate leftover fried rice that they ineffectively heated up with a heat gun, so I guess not so good lol.
The weather wasn’t a big help either as SoCal decided to finally rain, except it dropped bucket loads of water which partially flooded the streets and forced us to put a large tent over our garage workshop that was slowly creeping out into the cul de sac.
As usual, it just seemed like we were constantly behind schedule and our progress was certainly hindered by arguments between team members and coaches. Yeah it got pretty heated at times (deepest condolences to the Code Orange mentors who had to monitor us when we borrowed their field). There were too many petty bouts, but I won’t lie and say that it didn’t make for good entertainment.
Here's a little compilation of some of our "heated arguments"...
And sometimes it really do be like that...
"Top Ten Moments before Disaster"
However, there were definitely some moments where concerns were voiced up by teammates over behavior that had no place on a robotics team. Out of respect for everyone involved and the fact that everyone has matured beyond that point, I won’t disclose any details. It was often the case that I had to play the mediator role between the coaches and my fellow leads. Other times I was the one doing the arguing with coaches or fellow leads thanks to my massive ego. Well, this is what happens when you have a lot of smart people who all really want to build their idea of a great robot, so THIS WAS FINE. There were definitely a lot of mistakes that I made as a leader, but I’ll fill you in on the biggest red flag and regret for me. The decision was made by me and Arjun to hold a straightforward lead-member evaluation where the members would give the leads ratings for different categories along with their comments on the leads while the leads would do the same for the members. Looking at this now, I think that the idea of constructive criticism was there, but the big no-no came in my decision to not make the google form anonymous for the members. Wait, if you think that was a horrible decision there’s more, we decided to hold meetings with each member to talk about our ratings and feedback. Ok, talking over feedback is much better than just handing over words, but the idea of ratings and trying to objectively give a score to each individual was a major mistake, but we live and learn. I’m just going to be honest and say that those were some of the most uncomfortable conversations I’ve ever held with my teammates and I’m glad we ditched that after the start of the build season. I was relieved that many people surprisingly took the feedback to heart, really put their heads down and worked extremely hard during the build season. Although it’s never something we like to do, performance reviews do exist in the real world, so I realized that although it will appear in a very different form, this situation will rear its head sometime down the line regardless of which side of the table I’m sitting.
On a lighter note, we still continued our tradition of card games, however we had ascended to a new form of currency in our Texas Hold 'Em games...screws, nuts, & washers...yep you read that correctly...
As a quick foray into the technical design of our Destination: Deep Space robot, I would say that there was a dramatic increase in workmanship along with proper dimensioning standards. Unfortunately a lack of CNC machining limited my ability to pursue many of the sketches and CAD models I made, but I still love our robot regardless of its flaws. The use of ACME-thread lead screws (ACME threads, often used in higher-load situations and CNC-drive systems, are broader, stronger, and squarer than standard V-shaped threads, as such ACME threaded rods have much better wear properties, load capabilities, and tolerances, than standard threaded rod) to drive out elevator was a unique decision, but ultimately very flawed for a system that required speed over precision. The elevator itself used steel, extra-wide sleeve bearing IGUS rails and carriages which were a headache to deal with when they broke. If I had to do it over again, I would shell out for the extra gearbox and parts needed to make a continuous rigging elevator driven by UHMWPE rope and pulleys. In order to save costs we opted to use Vex C-channels that slid through the use of attached linear IGUS rails over using a bearing block on a round shaft, which ended up causing a lot of headaches with tolerances for the sliding fit and more components to worry about (remember, a simpler design with less parts that does the same thing as a more complicated design is the way to go, less parts = less chances of failure).
The advent of the brushless Neo motors as a workhorse FRC motor over the standard brushed CIM motors was a nice change. Our end effector geometry was completely limited without CNC machining, which meant that we couldn’t pursue the designs we really wanted in order to have a “touch it, own it” end-effector for the cargo and hatch panels. An extremely stiff and solid chassis along with our first few custom belt-tightening modules (BTMs) meant that we really reduced our headaches in that department. The “big sad” moment came from the majority decision from the coaches and leads to remove as many pneumatic actuators as possible with one-time-release, spring-loaded mechanisms to save weight (once again this ruined many of my potential designs and a whole load of pneumatic components that I purchased to do some cool stuff). I do have to say that we became a lot more organized with our fasteners and simplified our selections to reduce that inevitable moment in comps when you need that one special fastener or else the whole thing goes to “insert word here.” Honestly our climbing system was hella (yeah one year in NorCal really changes you) good and it was excellently integrated into the elevator thanks to some quick thinking from me and Coach Hamid after spending hours trying to avoid adding another set of motors. If I had one word to describe the design of our robot, it would be confused. We were stuck between over-designing and coming up with a minimum viable product; and this confusion showed with a superior climbing mechanism and chassis, but inferior end-effectors. Case in point...
I present to you our 2019 Destination: Deep Space Challenger...Chonkey Kong...and some "quality" Code Orange Testing Field pics
Once again, my health was not where I would have liked it to be. I don’t know why, but I decided that I would make blood donations at the two blood drives with the minimum allowed time period of 8 weeks in between. Yeah big mistake for a lanky 150 pound, 5’ 9” Asian stick. This decision to donate 2.5 bags of blood (yeah I know, for the first drive they got half a bag out of my non-writing arm, but had to switch over to the other arm to get at least one full bag) combined with lack of sleep and lack of nutrition (mom was abroad for family matters, so it was microwaveable food and cup noodles for the long haul) would really come back to bite me at the end of the school year, the summer, and my first few months at Berkeley. I definitely felt invincible (as all teenagers do) at the time so I didn’t watch the warning signs.
As I mentioned before, this season was my favorite and for good reason. I'll let this compilation do the talking for me lol.
To all the hatch mechanisms I've made before...
Ok I don't actually know what's happening here, but that is what's left of the cargo ball from the kit of parts...so yeah fun times.
Ah yes, the staple food of the adolescent homo sapien...
"Do you know how a PID Controller works?"
"Well yes, but actually no."
We here at Team 6560 like to be at the forefront of fashion trends...
Ok that's enough memeing around, let's get back on track.
I’m not gonna lie, the Del Mar regional turned into a real downer. Actually all three competitions were heart breakers thanks to losses in the knockouts. So, spoiler alert: no worlds, but also that opened up opportunities to be able to do other things like play in the district Honor orchestra as our concert date was during world championships. Back to Del Mar...I decided that since we would be in San Diego, I would go full out on the SoCal vibes with shorts, a white v-neck, and Ray-Ban aviators. Yeah, very funny David...
It was hella cold, and it was going to rain that weekend so I ended up checking out the pits and arena while freezing my “insert that part of the human anatomy” off.
"You're probably wondering what's under there? Is it my Bitcoins? Maybe. Is it my legos? Possibly. Guess we'll never know."
I had started a habit of bringing my viola to competitions last year at Ventura as a way to relieve my stress (and obviously to make sure I was getting my 40 hours of practice a day), and as such the first thing I did after getting back to the hotel was to play. That night before the practice matches was just one of many where my inability to sleep (yeah if you read the first part I still have that problem here) meant I worked out in the gym from 12AM to 3AM (kk, The Office and food channel were on so I stayed a bit later than usual).
Once I got back to my room, another challenge awaited me as I tried to avoid waking up the light sleepers among my roommates. After that, it was lying aimlessly for three hours, waiting for the breakfast lounge to open. Thanks to this sleepless night, I was obviously the first to get breakfast (yeah you already know I flexed this on everyone else).
Here's another "quality" compilation and look into Team 6560 in our element...
"We don't discuss business at the table..."
"Did you know if you put your hands like this you look really stupid..."
"Don't ever talk to me or my kids ever again..."
The same old things happened on practice day as we tried to get our fat “insert that part of the human anatomy here” robot under 125 pounds.
After that, a lot of other problems crept up that honestly had me wanting to go to the sauna back at the hotel, which is exactly what I did after dinner. It was at the sauna that I met the head mentor for a fellow team from NorCal. I’d gotten used to long chats with older individuals at work so we spent the next hour talking about a wide range of topics as he sipped his beer and I drank my ginseng energy drink (kind of got addicted to these in my senior year). My teammates just sat in the sauna besides me and I lowkey kind of forgot they were there. After he decided it was time to get some shut-eye, we bid our farewells as he reminded me that as a leader I should make sure the team all got a good night’s sleep before the actual competition days. Being the responsible individual I am, I promptly did nothing and we all stayed at the pool to do our typical shenanigans with truth or dare being a particularly spicy moment.
We'll take a moment to recognize some truly "quality" moments outside of comp...
At the start of competition, I was really hyped to try and win, but every loss and piece of damage to the robot just seemed to bring the mood down. Also, my body was not feeling it lol. First thing that went wrong for me was a field technician ramming our 24 pound robot into my foot and ankle before I could get out of the way as we were setting up on the field. Yeah that required a lot of tape and ice packs, so that was great. As usual, my back acted up so I had to quickly put on my stash of heat packs to ensure I didn’t become useless mid-comp.
Before I continue on, imma drop a lot of "quality" Del Mar Comp photos for your enjoyment.
As you can see, I have this condition where I just completely miss the camera lol...
Ngl they had me in the first half...but second time's the charm
Fortunately, our robot was good enough to make it into the knockouts, but we got easily eliminated by the “sideways elevator” gang in the semifinals (still want that Hightide merch to this day).
Biggest "What-if" Partnership in FRC history...
Once it was clear we weren’t winning the chairman’s award either, all the emotions just started coming. I quickly exited the arena to get some fresh air and sat on a bench for what seemed like hours as I wallowed in frustration. A common theme you will notice in the first two competitions is what I like to call being over-invested to the point of breakdown.
Find the one person with an upside down smile...
Yeah, not my proudest moments, and it only got worse at our next regional, LA North. Looking back, I can see that I wanted to win so badly that it hurt to lose, but that mentality prevented me from enjoying the moment and my last competitions in FRC. On that point, my desire to win was definitely spurred on by the internal realization that the curtain was closing on the chapter to my life and for high school me, I desperately wanted to make sure that involved a trip to worlds as some sort of vindication for my efforts or a last hurrah. There’s nothing wrong with feeling this way, but it was definitely a regret as I didn’t enjoy being in the present moment at the time. That’s enough reflection and decomposition for now, let’s move onto our next regional, LA North.
LA North was really THE ONE where I thought everything would come together for us. The relative inexperience of the field combined with the fact that there was really no dominant or clearly superior robot (the ELO rankings for the year even indicated that we would be one of the top robots at this comp) gave us belief that we could really do it. As usual, the competition started with a practice & inspection day in order to prepare for the upcoming matches and I didn’t get any sleep the night before we drove up to the venue. The wear and tear from Del Mar was evident as there was plenty of rework for the elevator system and our intake. It took an unnecessarily long amount of time just to attach on our new BTM for the elevator drivetrain. By the time most of our repairs were finished, we had burned through more than half a day and we had yet to even participate in any practice matches. At this point, I opted out of lunch completely (big mistake lol) in order to continue testing our robot and attempt starting from stage 2 of the climbing platform in the initial phase of the game. Several tests were enough to show us that this was probably not a great idea in terms of the structural integrity of the elevator and arm subsystems. Fortunately, by the end of the day, we made all the needed changes, passed inspection, and got in some reps on the practice field. All in all, it wasn’t too bad for us. Back at the hotel, we were hoping to get in our comp tradition of having a mini pool party, however, we were in for quite a surprise. With our bad luck, there just so happened to be a dance competition in town and an entire dance group had laid claim to the pool. We thought to ourselves, “Ok fine we’ll take the jacuzzi.” Yeah nice try. Their group was definitely too large for just the pool so some of their members inevitably started peeling over to the jacuzzi and next thing you know, we had returned to the designated “party room” (I willingly donated my room and was not coerced or blackmailed into this decision lol). I’m ngl when we started our first few matches, it wasn’t quite smooth sailing as we suffered a loss or two in our first few matches. However, we started to pick up some serious steam and chugged our way to the 1st seed by the end of the qualification matches with a 10-2-0 record. As you can guess, we were quite over the moon as in our minds, all we could think was, “THIS IS OUR TIME.” Alas, it was not to be. Remember when the 8th seed “We Believe” Warriors upset the 1st seed, Dirk Nowitzki-led Mavericks... well yeah you can probably guess where I’m going with this. Everything seemed like it was going according to plan. We didn’t have any needed changes or repairs to our comp bot and we got to the field a solid 15 minutes before our first playoff match. What could go wrong? We took game 1 against the 8th seed alliance and felt the surge of adrenaline. We felt like we were almost at the finish line, but sometimes life gives you lemons. We lost game 2. Remember when I said “what could go wrong?”...well yeah we forgot 1 screw...1 10-32 black-oxide, alloy-steel, socket-head screw for our right bumper. We lost our climb points as a result and would be heading to a game 3. Things were about to get interesting. We were up in game 3 and it seemed like we would make our way to the semis. We lost by THREE points which would have been a 3 point win if our alliance had not received a 6 point penalty. A single lapse in focus cost us the match and series. Our mistakes in game 2 and 3 were unfortunate, but they were entirely in our hands and we have no one to blame but ourselves for those losses. By that point, I didn't just blow off the top of my boiler room. No. I had reached the drunk president pressing the kill switch to launch all the nuclear warheads mode. For anyone at Valencia High School who is curious as to why one of your paper dispensers in the bathroom had several cracks in it and why the second stall toilet paper holder had a dent in it. Well...you know why. I don’t like talking about moments where I let my emotions get the best of me and the 2019 LA North Regional was one of the few times where I’ve lost it and it wasn’t pretty so we don’t talk about it. Don’t worry, a good night’s sleep for the first time in a while helped me to realize that all of this was a learning experience and that we use these moments to emerge better. In the end, I remembered that the reason why I even wanted to do FRC in the first place was to learn about how to build cool robots and to become a better engineer, not to go out and try and win a bunch of blue banners. I made a resolution to myself that, as my time in FRC was coming to an end, I would spend my last competition enjoying the little things that I remember from my first few competitions. The thrill of being on a time crunch in the pits while repairing the robot, cheering my team on from the grandstands, memeing around with my teammates, and so on. I would go out on my own terms and I wanted to remember good things, not the frustration and bitterness.
Finally, we reach my last ever FRC competition as a student. It was only apt that it happened to be both my first and last regionals, the Ventura Regional. The realization of how much I had changed and grown from that timid sophomore sitting in the corner of the garage began to hit me. There was the grassy knoll right outside of the competition venue where we ate subway sandwiches and as I sat there on practice day, I remember sitting in that same spot 2 years prior, eating the same sandwich. The people around me might have changed a bit, but it was pretty much the same team and the same vibes. I realized just how quickly time can fly when you’re enjoying yourself and all I could do was laugh to myself. As they say, I wasn’t sad that it was over, I was smiling that it happened.
We did alright in this competition and once again, we got eliminated in the quarter finals. That was fine. There was good news as I decided that I would take my talents to South Bea...I mean Berkeley (and the L from the school in the south of the bay) so you already know I’ll be rolling out a blog about my first year at Cal. Life is just a series of doors that open and close at the right time. The signals were clear that this chapter of my life was a closing door and rather than fight it, I would just have fun. I’d like to think of it as smoothly sailing into the horizon. To be honest with you, it was the right time for a change, and that is one of the most important things about this whole experience. I don’t want to repeat messages that have already been churned out plenty of times by mentors in the past, but I’ll say it again. Don’t do FRC in college. I repeat. DON’T DO FRC IN COLLEGE. Join your school’s FSAE team or Hyperloop team, try learning a new language, find a research lab that piques your interest, invest your time into new experiences that help you broaden your horizons. There’s a season for everything in life, and I’m not saying that FRC is bad for you, I’m saying that it will be better for your own personal growth to expand into different interests. There’s plenty of other ways to explore your interest in robotics. As I stated at the start of this blog, I’m still leaving the door open to mentorship, but not now. I’ll try my hand at it once I’m a little older and a little wiser. Now, for those of you who are new to FRC and are still reading, well, I really hope that these stories provide a unique look into one of the many experiences you can possibly have as a student in FRC. There’s definitely some ugly moments, but with time, I only remember positive things. So, personally, I encourage you to join FIRST, not for the sole purpose of just having something for college applications or to flex, but for the purpose of trying new experiences. I think now is an apt time to shoutout all the teammates I’ve had in FIRST because that’s really what makes this whole thing truly special: the camaraderie. So, to Arjun, Albert, Aaron, Adrin, Anish, Rithik, Jingwen, Jamie, Yiming, Jaimin, Thomas, Jack, Euan, Radin, Alicia, Selina, Steven, Jason, Alex, Ganesh, Rudy, Parva, Krish, Max, Rohan, Jun, Aryan, Sophie, David C., Charlie G., Victor, Christopher, Charlie D., Nandita, AJ, Pallavi, and Aryan, it was a good run and thanks for everything. If you thought I forgot about the coaches, I had you in the first half, so enormous thanks to Coach Raj, Coach Srini, and Coach Hamid.
PS: One of my hatch mechanisms got it's shot at next year's Beach Blitz and I consider that an absolute win lol
PSS & BIG spoiler: Let’s go! Team 6560 qualified for the 2020 World Championships by making the finals at the 2020 LA North Regional. You see, there’s always a happy ending.