NOTE: The nature of this article is intended to be controversial, it is meant to spark conversation/discussion and provides only one point of view about the 2014 FIRST Robotics Competition Game Aerial Assist.
We’re going to focus on the big problems with Aerial Assist and what FIRST should look out for in the future. This article is going to sound very negative, that’s intentional. We are solely focusing on the negative because we need to recognize what the core problems this game had were. These are the core issues we have identified with this game. They are roughly in the order of severity from game breaking to just being annoyances that could be worked around.
There are several core problems with this game, the biggest of which is the fact that refs are horribly over worked. Initially, there were 6 refs. These 6 had to watch all game play, track where the ball was, track robots, asses penalties, and mark balls as scored. At the same time they had to deal with an interface that has been documented to have several seconds of lag. FIRST announced that there would be an additional ref added mid season. However, this was likely a case of too little too late as the sour taste had already been planted. While it did decrease the number of missing calls these folks simply have an impossible job this year.
The game also had several rules that were completely judgement calls by the overworked refs. Rules such as high speed ramming, and damaging contact inside the frame perimeter are ambiguous at best but coupled with a high penalty, a hard to score game piece, and stressed refs led to some very nasty situations. To make matters worse, Possessions, the core concept of the game, we’re often missed or called differently depending on the refs. This was the core of why FIRST seemed more toxic this year; Stakes were high for teams and any perception of bias for or against teams was frustrating.
Continuing with the trend of ill thought out rules, it was determined that teams causing damage to other teams should be penalized heavily. This is logical, FIRST doesn’t want teams being demolished. However, the way this was implemented was simply wrong, a team could draw a massive foul by having a poorly constructed bot him and ramming a more robust machine until their own machine broke. For example, I witnessed instances in which a team that was incapable of manipulating a ball rammed their intake into a more robust machine. The robust machine did not break but the other one did, the robust machine was assessed a large penalty for merely being the target of defense. When questioned the ref agreed that it was silly but the rules were not ambiguous, the robust machine would be assessed then penalty. This cost them the match. This is, frankly, unacceptable. It teaches students that building a robust machine will be penalized.
Missing No Call Rule
Possessions for your own ball were poorly thought out, but incidental possessions of the opponent ball and playing defense on said ball were even worse. Because of ambiguous definitions of Possession it was unclear if merely bumping an opponent ball while traveling would result in a penalty. On top of that, shoving an opponent into a ball could result in them getting a penalty. The biggest lamentation of the refs this year was the utter lack of a No Call Rule. Historically, FIRST has let refs say “Look, it’s pretty clear that they didn’t intend to possess that ball that got thrown into their bot”. This year they did not. All possessions were penalties. (Unless they weren’t possessions but how this distinction was made is pretty much a coin flip at best.)
Dead Ball Afterthought
FIRST doesn’t have the best track record of thinking games through, this year was no different. Only having one game piece is a trick FIRST hasn’t done in a while but having teams dying on the field has been a consistent problem – whether wiring issues, field problems, bad radios, or just generally bad construction – robots stop moving a lot. What happens when you combine these two situations? Well, as published the rules didn’t even think about it. If a team has possession of your ball and they die that ball is stuck in their bot. So, can you not score any more? FIRST’s solution was to implement a Dead Ball sign and have the refs mark the ball as dead. More work for refs. What happens if the ball comes loose again? The ball has to be scored. But is it worth anything? Can I Truss it? Can I get assists off it? And how do refs keep track of balls? It’s just a massive pain.
We’ve addressed primarily administrative problems with the game so far but there were also several technical problems with the game execution. The biggest issue was the lag in lighting the pedestal that allowed teams to enter a new ball onto the field. There were times when there was a noticeable delay (>10 seconds) between when a ball was scored and when the team was allowed to enter a new ball. That’s ignoring the delay introduced by the aforementioned overworked refs not seeing a score… How many replays were there this year? I don’t have a number but I know that my team was involved in an entire district event worth of replays prior to DCMP. This is too many. Most of them were caused by pedestal lighting lag.
Hot Goal Indicators
As an additional problem, the Hot Goal indicators lacked any form of accuracy, precision, or consistency. There were noticeable differences in timing of the lights and indicators as well as the two being out of sync. What was supposed to be 5 seconds was sometimes 8 and sometimes 2. And sometimes the lights were off from the vision targets. Being unable to reliably light up lights and drive a solenoid further made participants more critical of this game.
Implementation details aside there were also a few conceptual issues with this game. The largest issue was the combination of an open field, many high power motors, proliferation of cost effective multi motors shifters, a small number of game pieces, and a high penalty for a missed shot. This year was essentially the culmination of the long running Drivetrain Wars. Drives in FRC have been getting faster and stronger for most of a decade, with the increase in motors we are now seeing drive trains that can move faster and accelerate faster than we’ve ever seen. Adding in VexPro now designing and selling low cost shifters that accept more of these motors and you have a recipe for danger. On an open field this led to many high speed collisions, bumpers or no bumpers a 150+ lb mass traveling at 13 feet per second has a lot of kinetic energy and it needs to go somewhere. When two of these machines collide midfield damage is going to occur, especially to the intakes that, by necessity, extend outside of bumpers. On top of this issue, only one robot can be trying to score at once which means that 2/3 robots are on defense ramming the one bot that is trying to score.
This leads in nicely to the next issue, it was hard to score. Between inconsistent balls, a small target, and it being hard to release the requisite amount of energy safely very few teams were consistent at scoring. This furthered the issues depressing scoring.
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