Wednesday Jan 25, 2012

2012 FIRST Robotics Competition Season Underway

At this very moment, somewhere around the world, some students are staring at a Java stack trace for a robot. They have three more weeks to finish developing their code, even though the robot isn't done, a motor is fried, and the drive team ate all of the snacks while waiting for the bug to get fixed...

[Read More]

Tuesday Mar 29, 2011

Upcoming FIRST events - San Jose and Boston

Just a reminder that the San Jose and Boston FIRST Robotics Regional competitions are this weekend and next. These are free, cool events near Oracle campuses where you can learn more about FIRST, the FIRST Robotics Competition, Java + FIRST, and FIRST @ Oracle.

 I'll be visiting the local Java teams in Boston.

Date Event Venue Location
Apr 2 Silicon Valley Regional San Jose State U. San Jose, CA
Apr 9
Boston Regional
Agannis Arena (Boston U.)
Boston, MA

There are more details at FIRST Robotics @ Oracle , especially the Event tips page.

Wednesday May 05, 2010

Review of Java for the FIRST Robotics Competition

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Java Usage

The 2010 FRC season has just completed, which included Java as a programming option for the first time. We don't have full statistics of which teams used which languages, but we conducted surveys at several regional competitions (where “we” mostly means National Instruments and my trusty assistant).

The sample data shows about 16% of the teams used Java to program their robots. There was a lot of regional variation, from 0% Java use at the Dallas and Detroit regionals to 37-40% at the Boston and Manchester regionals. But that same 16% Java average held true for teams at the Championship competition. Extrapolating from that sample, world-wide there should be about 288 teams that used Java this year.

The middle of the US is looking pretty empty! We should get complete data after FIRST conducts its “kit of parts” survey.

Java Results

The Java teams did well. Some Java teams won their regional competitions, and Java teams were in the 2nd place and runner up positions at the world championship! In fact, the number of Java teams in the Quarter finals through to the Championship matches roughly tracked the percentage of teams in Atlanta running Java.

We received feedback from in-person surveys and on support forums. Teams were very happy to be able to use Java because it was either taught in their high school or was well understood by the mentors. They also liked the NetBeans development environment and having a “safe” programming language.

But it wasn't all “teflon wheels and traction control” (a FIRST phrase synonymous with “good”, which I just made up). There were definitely areas that teams wanted improved. Some common issues:

  • Needed more documentation:
    • “Big picture” overview of a robot (IterativeRobot)
    • Cookbook recipes – how to setup and use a gyroscope (for example), and how to use the data
  • Image processing was too slow. Careful tuning of the camera, robot code, and the Dashboard running on the laptop was required to get reasonable performance. This should have been pre-tuned, and the systems should have more “performance headroom”.
  • More diagnostics. Many, many, many robot failures look like either “watchdog” or communication errors, when in fact they may be wiring, low voltage, hardware, networking, USB, field system, or software failures.
    • Need to log more data to detect or rule out error scenarios.
    • Need to present data in a way that makes diagnosis easier
  • Installation/version match issues
    • Built-in installation sanity checks were added, but more can be done
  • Bugs in WPILib and Java IO
  • Late CAN bus implementation

I spent several days at regionals and at the Championship helping Java teams with issues. The most frustrating case was a Java team with intermittent field communication errors, but we couldn't narrow the issue down to hardware, software/Java, networking, or field issues. Another team had some robot logic issues I was able to help with, and several teams had issues that were resolved with wiring or component swaps. I was relieved that the Java system itself didn't seem to be the cause of serious problems.

Beyond looking for teams that needed help, I really enjoyed learning what teams were doing with their robots. One industrious team programmed their robot three times, once in C++, Java, and Labview, and developed an Eclipse module for Java on FRC. Another team experimented with porting several Java libraries to the robot including a JavaScript interpreter. A couple of teams switched from Java to C++ because the CAN interface for Java wasn't complete, but another team simply reimplemented all of the Java CAN interfaces themselves!

Conclusion

The first year of Java for FRC went well. Not without a hitch, but not bad. We'll be working with WPI to improve the system for 2011, especially in the areas of diagnostics and performance. And I'd like to see the use of Java for FRC world-wide match the 30% use that we saw in New England.

I'll add in the usual disclaimers here – speaking for myself, not for Oracle, Sun Labs, WPI, or FIRST. Any erroneous data would be due to me.

Wednesday Apr 28, 2010

“It's Not About the Robots”



Dean Kamen, serial inventor and founder of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), often says this phrase at regional and championship FIRST Robotics Competitions.

What is it about?

This is my first year with skin in the game – not with a team, but as part of the group at Oracle and WPI porting and supporting Java for the robotics competition.


As I looked over my photos of regional competitions and the world championship in Atlanta I found some shots that exemplified FIRST to me.



The Green Reapers call a time-out in the final rounds of the WPI Regional. Something has gone horribly wrong, and they have to make it right (in front of the whole audience).

This worked at back at school...


No, there shouldn't be any parts left over...
 It takes a village to raise a robot


You can't always get what you want. Or what you need. But you go on anyway.



I guess what impresses me is that after teams learn that a plan for “the coolest robot ever” is just science fiction until it is built and tested, after learning that creating a robot is so complicated that teamwork isn't just nice but a requirement, or kids that never held a screwdriver before can make something unique and amazing, after learning that the math and science they've been learning isn't just useful, but it's kind of fun, after they have a shiny new robot in a picture with the school principle, then they go to competitions. Then they realize that haven't built a robot so much as they've built a “Murphy's Law” detector. And they have to deal with it. And they do.

If this experience doesn't help develop a world-class, science and technology literate workforce I don't know what will.

The most iconic scene that I photographed was team 51 waiting to compete at the world championship, when something happened that required them to swap out the main computer of their robot. Like a NASCAR pit crew, the team jumped to perform this lobotomy while on the floor of the Georgia Dome. Unlike most competitive sports, other teams swarmed around to help them. In this picture, team 40 gets ready to help by re-installing a fresh image to the robot's computer.




Team 40 used Java on their robot, which may explain the gratuitous Oracle logo :-)




The FIRST Competitions teach the kids to bring everything they have – their creativity, knowledge, skill, problem solving, energy, commitment. Then share it – that's how big problems get solved. And if they bring all of that to the competitions, they'll leave with more than they came with. And that's what it's about.


p.s.

Apparently it's also about having fun. And hair. :-)



Friday Dec 04, 2009

Java SDK for FIRST Robotics Competition Released!

Over the last few months we've been working with WPI and 20 high school robotics teams getting the Java SDK for the FIRST Robotics Competition ready for the 2010 season. We've been getting great feedback from the teams including bugs and questions. We've also seen confirmation of the value that Java brings to some teams. One mentor said that they can usually only find a couple of student C++ programmers for the team, but for 2010 they have 10 Java programmers! Or was it 15?

This week FIRST announced a public release of the Java SDK. Here's the official word from Bill's Blog (the official FRC blog):

In addition, I’m very pleased to let you know that an early version of the FRC Java software is now available for download at http://first.wpi.edu/FRC/frcjava.html . I know we promised this for November, and I apologize for being a few days late, but I think you will be very happy with the results. Our hats off to the extraordinarily dedicated Java beta test teams and the developers for all their hard work! Veteran teams, I encourage you to open your doors to rookies in your area interested in getting an early look at Java and how it works with the robot. Remember they don’t have the advantage of having last year’s control system to experiment with.


This early-release SDK is only fully usable by FRC teams that have the cRIO hardware (veteran teams). Check the FIRST forums to read or request more information.

This Java SDK is based on the Squawk JVM and the Sun SPOT SDK. Rookie teams can get experience with the Netbeans IDE and Java ME APIs by using the Sun SPOT Emulator. See http://sunspotworld.com/frc for more information.

BTW, if you're an experienced Java programmer, don't sit around pouting about how you never get to program dangerous, high-speed, 120 pound robots. Consider being a programming mentor to a local FRC team! See our mentoring tips wiki as well as usfirst.org.


Monday Mar 23, 2009

Colorado FIRST Robotics Regional This Weekend

Just a reminder that the Colorado FIRST Robotics Regional competitions are this weekend! This is a free chance to see high school students compete with "gracious professionalism", as well as watch their adult mentors wears funny outfits and tear their remaining hair out.

Just 31 minutes from the Broomfield campus (says Google).

Date Event Venue Location
Mar 28 Colorado FRC Regional University of Denver, Ritchie Center Denver, CO

There are more details at FIRST Robotics @ Sun , especially the Event tips page.

Burlington High School, Team 2876

(Burlington High School, Team 2876, Boston FRC Regional)


Thursday Mar 12, 2009

Silicon Valley FRC Regional This Weekend

Just a reminder that the Silicon Valley FIRST Robotics Regional competitions are this weekend! Don't miss out on a great chance to watch students turn into engineers - oh, and some robots compete also :-)

Date Event Venue Location
Mar 14 Silicon Valley FRC Regional San Jose State U, The Event Center San Jose, CA

There are more details at FIRST Robotics @ Sun , especially the Event tips page.

Thursday Mar 05, 2009

Article on LAST year's FIRST Robotics Regional in Boston

Xconomy.com had a nice write up of last year's FIRST Robotics Regional in Boston. Maybe they'll promote this year's events in Boston, San Diego, and Seattle.

Boston and San Diego FIRST Regionals This Weekend

Just a reminder that the Boston and San Diego FIRST Robotics Regional competitions are this weekend. I'll be visiting the local Sun-related teams in Boston.

Date Event Venue Location
Mar 7 Boston Regional Boston U., Agganis Arena Boston, MA
Mar 7 San Diego Regional San Diego Sports Arena San Diego, CA

There are more details at FIRST Robotics @ Sun , especially the Event tips page.

[Sorry for the repost - going out to the Sun Labs blogroll this time...]

Wednesday Mar 04, 2009

2009 FIRST Competition Game - Lunacy

Re: FIRST Robotics Events Over Next Few Weeks.

If you're thinking about going to a competition, it helps to know the rules for the game (it changes every year).  Here's a 3 minute overview:

Boston and San Diego FIRST Regionals This Weekend

Just a reminder that the Boston and San Diego FIRST Robotics Regional competitions are this weekend. I'll be visiting the local Sun-related teams in Boston...[Read More]

Tuesday Feb 24, 2009

FIRST Robotics Events Over Next Few Weeks


This is the time of year when the FIRST Robotics Competitions start the regional championships. This is where six weeks of hard work by high-school students and their mentors are put to the test - complete with loud music, cheer leading, flashing lights and major enthusiasm.

If you've ever been curious to learn more about these robotics teams - for your kids, or for yourself as a potential volunteer, this is the way to find out. It's fun and it's free!

 Here's a short list of events near major Sun campuses:

Date Event Venue Location
Feb 28 Granite State Regional Verizon Wireless Arena Manchester, NH
Mar 7 Boston Regional Boston U., Agganis Arena Boston, MA
Mar 7 San Diego Regional San Diego Sports Arena San Diego, CA
Mar 14 Silicon Valley Regional San Jose State U, The Event Center San Jose, CA
Mar 28 Colorado Regional University of Denver, Ritchie Center Denver, CO

There are more detail at the FIRST Robotics @ Sun Wiki, especially the Event tips page. You can search for all events at the FIRST website.


Monday Feb 23, 2009

FIRST Robotics @ Sun Wiki

I've started a public Wiki FIRST Robotics @ Sun for Sun employees, alumni, and family to learn and sharing information about getting involved with the various great FIRST robotics organizations:

I can't say enough good things about FIRST - their goal to inspire kids to learn about science and technology meshes really well with Sun's goals and with the engineering mindset of many employees. FIRST is always looking for volunteers to mentor teams and impart that engineering mindset. So check out the wiki!

About

Out of the fog... of bits, bytes, and really small Java Virtual Machines, by Derek White. The views expressed on this blog are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Oracle.

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