Citrus Circuits came into the FIRST Robotics competition at UC Davis this weekend with nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Having already won the regional competition that took place in Madera a few weeks ago, the team — composed of high school students from Da Vinci and Davis high schools, as well as ninth-graders from Davis junior high schools — was assured of a return trip to the world championships in St. Louis next month.
There, their little Frisbee-throwing robot, which is not only accurate at tossing discs 18 feet through the air and through a small rectangular opening, but also a demon on defense able to keep larger robots from getting where they need to go, stood a good shot competing against thousands of robots made by high school students around the world.
But having been to the world championships twice before, the students of Citrus Circuits are well aware of just how much tougher the competition in St. Louis is, compared to the regional competitions they’ve performed so well at in recent years.
“We won in Madera,” noted Da Vinci alumni and team mentor Devin Castellucci. “But we didn’t like how our shooter was performing. It wasn’t shooting as fast as we need it to and we felt like we weren’t going to be competitive enough in St. Louis.”
While their robot went back into plastic immediately following the Madera competition, the team returned to the classroom at Da Vinci — specifically, teacher and Citrus Circuits coach Steve Harvey’s classroom — and built a new system for the robot to shoot Frisbees.
When they arrived at UCD last week, they spent a good part of the first day of competition installing the new system, making on-the-spot repairs and working out kinks.
But they were in the middle of competition at the same time, going up against 52 other teams from Northern California. And unable to shoot well during their morning matches, the Citrus Circuits robot soon slipped to 49th place out of 53 teams.
“It’s not going well,” Harvey said of the morning’s competition. “But it can only get better.”
By mid-afternoon, with the new shooting system finally in place and working well, the robot was rolling, moving from 49th place to eighth place, Castellucci said.
Playing on three-robot alliances against other three-robot alliances, and with driver Takumi Kawaguchi controlling the robot from outside the playing field, their robot was firing Frisbees quickly and accurately through several matches.
And shooting Frisbees is just one of the things the Citrus Circuits robot does well.
Early on in the creative process — back in January, in fact, when all teams have six weeks to construct their robots out of similar materials — the Citrus Circuits team developed an effective method for their robot to quickly and easily pick Frisbees up off the floor before getting into position to shoot them.
Many other robots competing this weekend didn’t have effective intake methods, meaning they had to travel to a far corner of the playing field for a manual Frisbee intake. Not only did that slow them down, it gave the Citrus Circuits robot a chance to play defense, specifically, by blocking often larger robots from reaching their intake sites.
“Our robot is agile, and moves very fast,” noted team member Reese Woodard.
So fast, and so good was their robot on defense, that the team was confident that even if their slow start kept them from moving to the top of the leader board by Saturday, another, higher-ranked team would pick Citrus Circuits for their alliance. Sure enough, the top-ranked team chose the Davis robot for Saturday’s elimination rounds.
Unfortunately, things went a little south at that point. Between issues with the gearbox and a drive train that ate an ethernet cable, Citrus Circuits ended up bowing out by early afternoon, having made it into the quarterfinals, but not out of them, Castellucci said.
Still, team members are confident that their time spent at the competition was worthwhile and will only help them heading into St. Louis.
“We came here to win, but we also came to test that shooter and get it working,” Castellucci said. “We worked out a lot of kinks and we’ll be really competitive in St. Louis.”
The FIRST Robotics rules allow the team to remove and work on up to 30 pounds of fabricated components between now and the world championships, so they’ll keep tinkering with the Frisbee shooting system while the rest of the robot is wrapped up in plastic, not to be unwrapped until competition starts in St. Louis on April 24.
They return to the world championships as a team that many took notice of last year.
Citrus Circuits left last year’s world championships 44th out of 2,500 teams in the final power rankings, and that was after a mechanical failure kept them from performing at optimum level.
Absent that failure, Harvey has said, “I think we would have gone on to the semifinals, and maybe the finals.”
“Other teams were definitely watching us,” he added.
This is Harvey’s eighth year coaching the team, though the competition has been around much longer.
Segway inventor Dean Kamen started the FIRST Robotics competition in 1989 as a way to get high school students interested in engineering. Each year, the competition focuses on a different game. Three years ago, teams built robots that played soccer. Last year it was basketball. And this year it’s Frisbee.
Thousands of teams from all over the world participate, with each team receiving identical kits in early January containing everything from small motors and batteries to automation components, which teams can supplement with additional materials of their own. They have six weeks to build their remote-controlled robots.
This year’s game, “Ultimate Ascent,” has robots throwing Frisbees through rectangular goals, with more points earned for higher goals. In the final 30 seconds of the match, robots earn additional points by climbing a tall pyramid, earning more points the higher they climb.
Their human controllers, meanwhile, get in the action as well, getting a chance in the final 30 seconds to throw Frisbees, though they are throwing across the court, trying to make it through the same small goals. Still, Citrus Circuits’ thrower, Dana Natov, was having some luck on Friday.
Citrus Circuits is sponsored by UCD, including the chancellor’s office and several colleges within the university, as well as local businesses and service organizations. Learn more about the team at www.citruscircuits.org.
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at [email protected] or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy