Friday, February 19, 2016

Big Developments in Educational Robotics in Houston

This is an overview of major upcoming events and developments in educational competitive robotics in the Houston area. There are indeed some major developments that will be highlighted here. This is intended as the 3rd of series of postings diving deeply into the topic, but will be published 1st to publicize some events happening soon. (The 2nd article will provide more detail about the full scope of educational robotics available and practiced around the greater Houston area, and the 1st article -- to be published last, of course... -- will discuss why students and mentors should get involved.)
   The events will be listed here in chronological order, focusing on the very largest -- and some are huge! The public is welcome at all these events and attendance is free and volunteerism strongly encouraged.

FTC robot climbing a 5 foot tower. Note
the smartphone used as the controller.
February 6, 2016 (yes, already passed but listed anyway due to expected future development): Southeast Texas/Louisiana FTC Regional. FTC is one of the top levels of the FIRST family of robotics programs (in aggregate FIRST is the largest set of robotics programs in the world). FTC allows use of an almost unlimited range of parts and technologies and now features a control system based on Android phones using Java programming. Robot size and complexity are rapidly advancing.

FLL robots are 100% Lego parts. The
focus is programming (aka "coding").
February 20, 2016: the Lone Star FLL Championship for FLL (FIRST Lego League), the largest single robotics program in the world with more than 300,000 participants. FLL is set up as a multi-disciplinary competition with robots built totally from the Lego Mindstorms kit and targets mostly ages 9-14. Between 150 and 200 teams overall participate in the Houston area and the 36 (or so) top performers are in this championship tournament. This year the tournament is at Stafford High School and starts at 8 AM.

VEX robots can be large & complex
February 27, 2016: the VEX Robot Jubilee (this tournament functions as the top level VEX robotics tournament for Texas). This tournament has grown to the biggest number of robots of any in Texas and features both VEXIQ (mostly for grades 4-8) and VEX (mostly for grades 9-12) robotics. These robots can be surprisingly large, complex and fast and make for very interesting matches. Houston VEX and VEXIQ teams have gone on to win the international championship in recent years. This year the tournament is again at Clear Falls HS in League City and starts at 8 AM on Saturday. Volunteers are needed!

Team 118 "Robonauts" from Clear Creek
ISD are the current FRC World Champions!
Their robot starts out 5 feet tall and grows!
April 8-9, 2016: the Lone Star FRC Tournament at the George R. Brown Convention Center. This is the "biggest" and longest-running of local robotics tournaments, featuring more than 50 large teams from all over Texas, other states and even other countries. FRC is generally regarded as the top class of educational robotics targeting grades 9-12, with the largest and most complex robots, and is the top-tier of the FIRST programs. There is an abundance of high-energy robotic competition throughout Friday and Saturday morning, and the event can be very inspirational for anyone interested in what robotics education programs offer. The current reigning world champion FRC robot is from the Houston area (team 118 from Clear Lake), as well as the 2013 world champion (team 1477 from The Woodlands). These championships are amazing achievements and a clear sign that robotics is growing in capability in Houston.

A MATE ROV with 8 motors, 4 cameras,
3D printed parts and Arduino control
May 7, 2016: the MATE Texas Regional ROV Competiton. MATE ROVs are underwater robots, many of which rival the best FRC and VEX robots for complexity and capability. This event happens each year at the NASA Neutral Bouyancy Lab (the largest indoor pool in the world), with 30-40 teams mostly from Texas and Louisiana high schools (but some universities participate too). MATE offers unique challenges and technology and is growing in popularity (due to things such as Disney's recent movie "Spare Parts"), but is difficult to observe due to space constraints.

Now for the really big news:

June 23-25, 2016: the MATE International ROV Championship will be in Houston at the NASA Neutral Bouyancy Lab. This happens only once every 10 years or so and features more than 60 teams from schools and universities all over the world! This is a rare opportunity to see some of the very best that educational robotics offers.

April 19-22, 2017: the FIRST Championship -- the largest educational robotics event in the world -- will take place in Houston! The event is so large it will use the George R. Brown Convention Center, Minute Maid Park and the Toyota Center -- all at the same time! The event was here in Houston once before (2003), but is now even larger and has committed to 4 consecutive years here. Between students, parents and mentors we're expecting upwards of 50,000 people to travel to Houston for this event. It will be an amazing spectacle of "Sport for the Mind (tm)" and we strongly encourage you to put it on your calendars now. And you thought having the Super Bowl here in Houston was big news....  ;-}

Other places to see large exhibitions of educational robotics in action: Robotics teams around Houston are happy and proud to show their robots and share their learning experiences, and do so through many small exhibitions throughout the year. But these 2 large events show an extensive array of most of the robotics programs, activities and hobbies from the Houston area -- actually a broader scope than just the educational robotics programs described above.

June 17-19, 2016: the Maker Hall in Comicpalooza at the George R. Brown Convention Center. There is a fee for entry but many things to do and see. It's difficult to get time from the students on robotics teams when they're at a competition event, but here they're happy to answer your questions and show you what they do.

November 2016 (specific dates to be announced soon): Houston Mini Maker Faire at the George R. Brown Convention Center. There is a modest fee for entry but many things to do and see. This event shows the widest range of robotics, including activities for anyone from very young children to the most advanced adults. We believe it shows the most diverse array of robotics of any event in the US. Exhibitors are happy to show you many details about robots of all kinds and share their experiences.

Check back here again in the next week or so as I post the 1st and 2nd sections of this series on competitive educational robotics in the greater Houston area.

Update 2/19/16: added example photos.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

There's A 3D Print For That!

Hey -- where's the wheel coupling?
   Perhaps you've been in the same position: you just bought something in a great deal -- but when you get it home you find something important is missing.... This happened to me recently when we got an excellent stainless-steel table in an "all-sales-are-final" auction -- was so excited to find it was actually brand new and had great wheels, but when we got it to the office and opened up the boxes the wheel mounting couplings were missing. Without them the wheels could not be attached to the table, which made the table almost worthless.
   But I'm a Maker, and I can fix this! I hope you enjoy this story of how Maker tools -- 3D design and printing in this case -- were applied to a practical problem.
   For several reasons (perhaps to be discussed another time) I decided to use PVC pipe as a supporting sleeve around a new fitted 3D-printed coupling. There would be some fun design in this, as some parts were round and others hexagonal, and all parts were of different sizes. There was also a little engineering involved to devise a way to deal with potential lateral stress since FDM 3D prints (FDM = fused deposition modeling, which is the most common technology used in current 3D printers) are susceptible to this, as lateral stress tends to break the weakest part of FDM prints (the inter-layer bonding).
The red component is the tighly-fitted
3D printed coupling. I will be supported
on the outside by a PVC sleeve.
A 2-part PVC sleeve was placed over
the 3D printed coupling for more
strength and stability. Note: there's
another fitted 3D printed ring under
the larger section of PVC.
For the sleeves to be strong with minimal susceptibility to lateral stress, the fit of the 3D printed pieces to the existing mechanical parts had to be precise. To achieve this I used my basic rule for 3D design against existing parts: measure twice and print thrice. Truly one of the great advantages of the whole desktop manufacturing revolution-- with 3D printing as the current crown jewel -- is rapid prototyping. By designing some test prints I was able to quickly arrive at the exact dimensions for all the critical parts, fitting both the internal and external surfaces of the existing mechanical parts. But why did it take up to 3 test prints to achieve this? Because the goal was to achieve a fit with a tolerance of less than 0.25 mm over imperfect surfaces so there would be no mechanical wiggle or rocking of the joint, and I wanted to avoid the use of glue. 3D printers do a variety of things that slightly alter the radius of curves (a good topic for another article), so when you need an exact fit some test prints are highly recommended. When fitting to existing curved surfaces, it's also critical to use a 3D printer that can print near-perfect circles (curves) -- so I used that one that from experience gives me the best circles. Because of the test prints, the final 3D printed coupling fit perfectly on the first full test.
The final result -- a full-usable rolling table!
   The final 3D prints fit snugly -- so well they needed a little "encouragement" from a rubber mallet to slide all the way on the existing pieces. Normally I'd be a little worried about putting that much stress on 3D prints because cracks could eventually appear, but since everything was to be held together by an equally-tight PVC sleeve I'm confident no stretching or expansion (and therefore no cracks) will happen. Here's what the final result looks like -- it's perfectly stable, level and rolls well. The table has been supporting more than 100 lbs of load for a while now, with no problems. 3D printing wins again!