This is a short summary of our amazing first season as an FRC team. We hope that other Rookie teams will get some ideas of what works and what can be improved, just like the lessons learned from other teams helped us to get started. FRC Team 6422, the GearHeadz has probably a more unusual history compared to a "normal" FRC team which you have to know to understand our somewhat special circumstances. We started 7 years ago in a basement as an FLL team. We were quite successful - we got 3 championship awards during our tenure and went to the world festival once and twice to the North American Open in California. The members of the team fluctuated a bit but we still have 4 members of the original FLL team. It was clear that we needed to progress as all of our members reached the age limit. We gave the FTC a try for one season in parallel to our last FLL season (our coach had mentored the local high school FTC team previously for 2 seasons). This turned out to be a bit much but we gained valuable experience in the FTC where the competition format is a lot closer to FRC. We also built our FTC robot mostly from raw materials which prepared us for building any kind of robot. We are well known in our community and after another FLL championship we made the plunge to start a community based FRC team. Financially it is not such a big problem - we got quite some donations and team members are expected to chip in. We also do not expect any travel expenses to be paid for. We applied for the Rookie startup grant and also found a corporate sponsor who paid for the signup fee. The main problem was to find a location to house the team. Luckily we have Nikola Tesla’s old laboratory in Shoreham/NY in walking distance which is being restored by a local group and we were promised access to one of the buildings to run the robotics team. It turned out that the building wasn't ready in time and we had to find other locations to run the FRC team. Our community helped us tremendously in this respect. We found a company close by where we had access to all kinds of power tools, many of our meetings were held at a local youth organization as well as the public library. We are a small team with 8 members so the meeting spaces didn't have to be large.
With that background - let us get into what worked and where we can (and will) improve.Not being part of a school makes it definitely harder to advertise and promote our team. To compensate for the lack of advertising we did a lot of community outreach (cleanups at the Tesla site, fundraising at the local food store, robot presentations at the civic associations and maker faires, connections to the local press). This certainly pays off in the long run. People have seen us and know what we are doing and are much more likely to support us. It's more sustainable to collect 100 donations of $50.00 rather than relying on a single $5000 donation. And one hint - if you go fundraising at the supermarket, do it during senior citizen discount day. You get amazing feedback from senior citizens, the team really loved the experience and we had our best fundraising result ever.
But not being part of a school gives you more flexibility. We can have our meetings at any time and they can last as long as they have to. Snow days don't result in lost time and especially towards the end of the build season we could run really late. We also don't have to go through some arduous purchasing process if we need something.
As a private team you really want to have a 501c(3) organization for fundraising. It does involve some money to create it but it makes fundraising a lot easier since you can issue tax deductible receipts. At the same time - you should get insurance. A lot of places do require it if you want a room. We found a reasonably priced policy from K&K insurance which covers potential damages: https://www.kandkinsurance.com/Recreation/Pages/Activities-Social-Club.aspx
Here are some of our lessons learned from the build season itself. We tried to prepare before January but honestly there wasn't much we could do even in hindsight. We looked at some presentations how to build things and looked a bit at the software but since you don't have an old robot (or the roborio/electronics) there is nothing you can play around with. Even if you purchase a roborio you still don't have the license from NI you need to run it.
Following advice from our mentoring team we spend the first week just looking at the challenge, talk about strategy and thinking about robot designs. That's probably a good idea though especially as a rookie team you might want to put the frame together very quickly and put the electronics on some wooden board to start the programmers to get used to it. We did this early on and it helped us just getting things to work (like the compressor, solenoid valves, speed controllers and all the sensors) even though we had to rip it apart again in the second week. We decided to use mainly wood for the robot. This year the robots were small - so the additional weight didn't put us above the limit. Many of the parents have wood tools at home so parts of the robot could be build in various basements. We could also work on the robot (e.g. drilling holes) while debugging the software - something you cannot do when metal shavings are involved. We plan to keep using wood if it's feasible in terms of weight.
We found a volunteer to build some field elements (that was a great help) but it was really late in the game and most of the robot was designed already. We did not build all field elements which really hurt us when we learned that the field version of the loading station worked very different from our tilted table we used. So - lesson learned - really find someone before the season starts who will help you building field elements. Get them as soon as possible. Make sure the drawings for the team field elements reflect what the field is using (the loading stations made of plywood where different by a few inches).
For the programming it was difficult to keep track of the current version of the code since we have more than one person working on it. We kept the versions in sync by copying and merging them by hand to our 3 laptops but what you really want is a code management system (like github which is incorporated in eclipse). We did not have enough time to get this to work - this would have been something to get going for the pre-build season. Eclipse itself is a nightmare where one wrong click can make your code unreadable (or vanish), make sure you read the instructions how to get back to the default. We haven't made up our mind if we want to spend the time and effort to try to go to a unix style environment with just makefiles (running under cygwin).
One warning for running at the competition - the notebook provided was not fast enough to run the controls during the matches. It worked fine at home but on the field it caused delays in the robot communication which made the job of the driver impossible (we had about one or two seconds delay between pushing a control and the robot reacting). Luckily we have everything on another laptop which we then used for the competition.
What helped steering the robot was having 2 speeds implemented in software. One setting where the robot got up to 1/3 of its speed for exact movements required to put the gear on the peg. The other setting was just going straight without steering up to maximum speed to traverse the field. That made the drivers jobs more manageable. It is actually a nice setting for robot demonstrations - now even kids can run our robot without endangering themselves or other spectators (and we have a kill button on our second remote so we can stop the robot if it gets out of control during demonstrations).
What helped for the preparation was to visit an actual competition before we had ours. Watching other competitions on the web certainly helped but having been at one in person is a real eye opener. It's too late to modify anything on the robot but it is a reality check for strategy discussions. We plan next season to attend 2 competitions. One can see a clear advantage for teams which have already have attended a competitions and had the additional focused 10 hours of debugging time with their robot and additional drivers experience. We'll try to get a second control system so our drivers can practice while we build our robot. Having just the last few days is not enough for this.
We think this is about it - we had a really amazing experience and you can always rely on other teams to help you out (which is the biggest lesson learned - you are not alone but part of a great community). We'll be there next season,
Cheers and good luck
Team 6422 - The GearHeadz