Team 1323: The Humans and the Machine
By Frédéric Martin, Editor-in-Chief
MadTown Robotics was already ranked first in the world before the final 2019 Houston competition, but winning the Einstein event proved challenging and required gumption to get over the finish line. Some of the robot’s seemingly most reliable components, which had proved virtually infallible through the entire season, broke during the championship competition. Other mishaps included a zip tie getting stuck into the wheel mechanism, although the part’s failure did, in fact, reassure team 1323 they had one of the best robots in the field, considering it was still winning partly disabled.
Another unforeseeable competition glitch required the team to replay a few initial round games because of wireless connectivity issues that had delayed communications between the driver and his robot. The problem was determined to be venue-related and the event management allowed for all the affected games to be replayed, which, although a welcome decision, did add stress to the already exhausted and overworked human team of robot 1323.
Becoming a world championship winner was the goal and now, with the ultimate win forever chiseled into its history, next year’s robot 1323 team’s target will be to build on its legacy, repeat the feat and remain the team to beat beyond 2020. Vernon Valmonte, MadTown Robotics instructor for the past two years, graciously spent time with me, on the last week of the 2018-2019 school year, to discuss the team’s progress to glory and how it is getting ready to embark into its next winning adventure. We met as the current MHS manufacturing shop was being dismantled to accommodate Madera High School’s massive retrofits going on this summer, starting with the demolition of aging buildings to be replaced with state-of-the-art shops for other CTE programs. The Robotics program will still reside at MHS, with a smaller building footprint, until it is fully relocated to the new Matilda Torres high school next year. At the time of the interview, the logistics for the 2019 summer activities were still being worked out for next year’s MadTown Robotics team.
A few years into its growth, the 1323 program needed help. Its founder, Alan Hollman, by then vice principal, was seeking assistance from teachers to help build up the still fledgling robotics program, at the time, considered as not much more than an after-school club. With none of the advanced manufacturing capabilities currently available to the team, the initial years were humbling at best, with losses in most games (unofficially eked five wins out of its first 30 games), but the team progressively learned from its failures, and improved on the robot’s design, manufacturing, programming, and team building, year after year. Back in 2009, the robot 1323 competition record was about even in the wins and losses columns. Then the 1323 team’s improvement went into overdrive under the supervision of stellar mentor Ranjit Chalal, better known as “R.C.”, and, more recently, with the added help from instructor Vernon Valmonte.
Although the robot’s game assignment, and related tasks radically change every year, the machine’s base, onto which the new capabilities are added, essentially remains the same, albeit the constant inclusion of ever-changing component upgrades. For example, for the last few years, each of the robot’s base wheel has had a separate, independent drive, delivering increased movement flexibility and reliability. All the robot’s components can also be swapped for less bulky and improved elements, as they become available, freeing up valuable space for additional capabilities to be added to the machine.
Indeed, added skills to the core robot do indeed improve the competitive chances for the following year’s team, yet, many team fundamentals have to be relearned and reinforced: computer aided design software, manufacturing, tools’ functions, shop maintenance, work ethics, and many more aspects of the overall project that require dedication, learning, and a return to basics, every year, as the top talent moves on after graduating from MHS. The last five years have built up to the world’s top position, chronologically advancing from within the top 10, top 5, and finally top 3 in the last few years.
Every school year, students around the world build their competition robot in early January, when the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) game specs are released to the 7,500+ participating high schools, from 28 countries; however, the MadTown Robotics instructors have plenty to do with their team, months before the new year’s challenge is made public. The fall semester is when the students demonstrate their team dedication: learning how to function in the manufacturing shop, where to get and to methodically return every tool so everyone knows where they are when needed, the basics of robot programming and driving, the business aspect of the robotics project, actively promoting MadTown Robotics to local businesses and service clubs to request cash or in kind donations, updating the organization’s website, responding to request, etc.
Currently, four courses contribute directly to the robotics program, within the CTE manufacturing pathway, allowing some of the manufacturing class students to use their class time to cut parts for the extracurricular robotics team. In 2019, most of the senior manufacturing students class spent about 200 extra hours, building robot 1323, in the first six weeks following the release of the game specifications, which, for the instructor and for the kids, is almost like having a full-time job for such a short period of time. MadTown Robotics has created a solid pedigree: it is the team to beat and the whole world is setting its sights on Madera’s robot 1323. As in the past, program graduates’ extracurricular contributions will prove invaluable to keeping the world title in Madera and continuing the winning legacy of robot 1323 and its handlers. Beside the crucial contributions of mentors, who have been essential in shaping the design, manufacturing, testing, team training, and instilling the work ethics into the project, local sponsors have generously donated to the program, including a reliable flow of meals from local restaurants for all those many evenings that turned into late nights.
Thanks to the program’s 2019 success, a few students from Howard, Desmond and Thomas Jefferson middle schools have already expressed interest in joining the robotics adventure. A few students came in late April to check out the facility and are interested in learning how to win this competition. Gauging the intensity required for the team and the willingness to participate beyond the call is really a core ingredient for the next winning team, including the willingness to do whatever it takes to help: shop cleanup, tools check-in/check-out, support for all team members so they know where everything is to speed up and smooth out processes, including the grunt work aspect of robotics.
The ideal team size is somewhere between 20 to 25 students, typically starting with a group of 35 students, to accommodate the inevitable “natural attrition” of kids who lose interest or eventually prove unwilling to put in the extra effort. Last year, the winning team started with 25 students and dwindled down to about 15.
To be considered for the 2019-2020 MadTown Robotics team, please contact Robotics instructor Vernon Valmonte at email@example.com, visit team1323.com, and make sure to check out the Robot and meet the team at the Madera Fair, this coming September 5 – 8, 2019.
Image Credits: North Star Photography.