“It’s as close to real-world engineering as a student can get,” Garrett said. “There’s an enormous amount of work – hundreds of hours – that goes into bringing robots like Opportunity to life. These kids are amazing. I grew up working with my dad in his mechanic’s shop, so I have been around the process of creating and fixing things for a long time. It’s exciting for me to see them doing essentially the same thing but with bigger tools and technology.”
The students showed their pride in bringing Opportunity to life.
“The biggest thing we’re proud of is how we’ve used PID Control Basics, similar to what allows for motoring correction in autonomous cars. We decided to build an elevator to complete the Deep Space tasks. We used PID to make the elevator – which was the hardest thing to build and calibrate – work. For example, we can give it a certain multiple of speed and it knows how high or low to go, based on what we need it to do,” explained Juniors Chris Freels, a programmer, and Tyler Brunette, drive team head. “Another new tool is CAN Bus communication, which chains things together along a single line, like multiple motors. This is very helpful when using pneumatics, which was also new for us this year.”
Traditional resources, such as using college-level calculus to understand Java, and researching information online, have also expanded the team’s knowledge, according to Brunette.
“We’ve learned so much. Last year we saw things and wondered, ‘When are we going to be able to do that?’ It’s very cool to be more advanced. We’ve had to work on the fly many days, go through multiple iterations and be open to criticism,” he said. “We’re proud of what we’ve done. This was a very ambitious project coming into only our second year.”
Just because the robot is physically built, however, doesn’t mean the team is finished. It still must promote itself, fund raise, fine tune programming and prepare for the competitions. One way the students can continue to “work” with the robot is through roboRIO, a configurable controller that essentially lets the team use a second robot to practice its tasks.
Red Thunder Robotics was fortunate enough to start using CAD (Computer-Aided Design) this year as well, thanks to funds from the district that covered a dedicated computer system. They’re also getting a new 3-D printer to help build components for the robot.
“This hands-on experience translates into many types of jobs, from engineering and manufacturing to architecture and a wide variety of applied sciences. These kids could leave school and walk into welding, CAD-CAM or electrician jobs, which are in high demand and pay very good wages,” Garrett emphasized. “We want to get rid of the stigma around technical education. Having FIRST on a college app definitely gets attention.”
Garrett is joined by volunteer professional mentor Andrew “Skip” VanderMolen, a retiree who passionately lends his time and talents to guide the team. With a PhD in nuclear physics, VanderMolen spent the majority of his career at the Cyclotron Lab at MSU developing computer-related support for experiments such as data acquisition and analysis, and experimental control.
A group of parents serves as the governing board for RTR. Community support is also a necessity.
Red Thunder is among the last of the Shiawassee County school districts to have a FIRST team, explained Garrett, so it has had to work harder for financial support from area businesses, grants and donated materials to help offset the high cost of just doing the basics. In its first year, Red Thunder competed against teams from bigger schools around the state who had more than $100,000 in monetary and in-kind support from major national organizations. This year, RTR is working from a $15,000 budget – one-third of which had to go toward just registration fees. It has received sponsorship dollars from several local groups – including Trijicon, the Laingsburg Lions and Laingsburg Educational Advancement Foundation, just to name a few – as well as a donated trailer to haul its equipment. The group could also use a second roboRIO, tool boxes, various additional tools and pit materials, and would love access to CNC machines and mentors.
“We’re growing,” said Garrett. “Every year will be better. Our kids work hard and deserve lots of kudos. We’re grateful to those who have stepped up to make this a reality for us.”
To learn more about how you can support Red Thunder Robotics, contact Garrett at 947-517-3001 or email@example.com
Follow all of Shiawassee County's robotics teams in a brand new Shiawassee Radio Podcast Series hosted by Corunna Robotics Lead Mentor, Scott Stap. ShiaRobots will feature interviews and follow all Shiawassee County's robotics teams throughout the season. The introductory episode is live now at shiawasseeradio.com