Mechanical Meltdown, the youth robotics team based in Watkins Glen, wrapped up their season with a focus on autonomous programming. This year 87 teams competed at events throughout the Excelsior Region, which encompasses all of New York State except New York City and Long Island. Mechanical Meltdown was among the 28 teams advancing to the Championship, which took place on March 5th in Utica.
Every fall when a new challenge is released by FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), students from around the world begin brainstorming ways to build and program a robot to play the new game. Over the next several months’ members follow engineering principles in a real-world situation to continually improve their creation. As they work together toward a common goal, youth also develop their individual skills in problem-solving, teamwork, engineering, programming, and technical documentation.
Prior to the Championship, Mechanical Meltdown competed at events in Penfield, Corning, and Broadalbin. At tournaments, teams are randomly partnered against another randomly-selected pair of teams. All four robots must begin within an 18-inch cube, and can then expand as they play on the 12′ x 12′ field. A partner for one match may be an opponent for the next match. This requires members to collaborate with other teams as they strategize to combine their strengths in order to maximize their scoring potential.
For the 2022-23 game, PowerPlay, teams were challenged to build and program a robot to collect cone-shaped elements and score them on poles ranging from 13 to 33 inches in height. According to Mechanical Meltdown’s lead mentor, Kathy Gascon, the builders were able to complete the main design, prototype, & build phase in a record period of time. The team’s programmers happily took advantage of this extra time to focus on control of the robot.
Austin Fairbanks, a Horseheads senior, has been a lead programmer on the team for 2 years. When asked about his experience and the opportunity to learn software development through robotics, Fairbanks answered, “When I first joined Mechanical Meltdown, programming was a hobby. Now 2 years removed from that time, programming has become my passion, my drive, my joy. Honestly, I never thought I’d be this passionate about something in my entire life.”
Gascon revealed that hundreds of hours were spent developing code that would allow the robot to self-correct if something goes wrong. Ellenanne Mansfield, a homeschooler from Burdett, is the team’s other lead programmer and will also be graduating this spring. Regarding all of the time and effort put in, Mansfield beamed, “Seeing the robot’s performance made all of the long hours worth it.”
Their hard work paid off! The team won the Control Award, which is given to a team for outstanding use of sensors and software to increase the robot’s functionality.
Each match at a tournament begins with a 30-second autonomous period, followed by a 2-minute driver-controlled period. During the autonomous segment, a robot must complete tasks using only pre-programmed code, relying on sensors to navigate its environment. This year Mechanical Meltdown had 15 sensors on their robot – more than in any previous year.
This would not have been possible without the great efforts of the team’s builders, who were tasked with finding ways to attach all of the needed sensors. These include a camera for computer vision to identify a randomized image, dead-axle encoders and a gyro to travel to key field locations, ultrasonic and laser sensors to gauge its distance from objects, and color sensors to detect tape on the floor.
The programming duo also developed software to enhance the driver-controlled period. To minimize human error, controls were set up to allow drivers to select pre-programmed heights for collecting & scoring cones. Code was also written to help drivers align with game elements, including 3 different drive speeds and the ability to change the “forward” direction based on the robot’s orientation. To protect the hardware, they also incorporated limit switches and established algorithms to override driver commands if mechanisms were determined to be at an unsafe position for the selected movement.
Ellenanne and Austin both plan to major in technology fields to follow the love they have found for programming and robotics. Fairbanks added some advice for his younger teammates, “Once you find what your passion is on this team, hold on tight to every moment you have with it. Being faced with leaving now I finally realized I should have cherished every living moment spent with my team, mentors, and most importantly, the robot.”
Fairbanks summed it up in a way that many soon-to-be graduates can surely relate to: “Why does it have to end? Can’t we just play with robots forever?”
Mechanical Meltdown and FLARE operate under Trumansburg Robotics, Inc., an exempt organization as described in Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. The group is open to students in grades 7-12 and meets regularly in Watkins Glen. Current members hail from Burdett, Horseheads, Ithaca, Ovid, and Watkins Glen.