FRC inspection is designed to look tough. There’s checklists, layers of procedures, and hierarchies of experts that govern the process. Even for veteran teams, it’s easy to get tripped up in protocol.
Fortunately, the inspection process is also designed to allow nearly every robot to pass! The majority of inspectors want you to compete safely, and they’re willing to work with teams to make that happen. Therefore when teams encounter difficulties during inspection, it’s important to remember that they can be overcome with just a bit of work.
But what if you dislike work? Instead, what if you’re interested in making your team’s inspection a repeatably smooth and happy process, free of major surprises? This will require a coordinated team effort, strong leadership, and comprehensive planning.
Know the rules
No excuses– if you want to be competitive, you’ve got to read the entire game manual. Brush up on The Robot section prior to the event. Supplement any weaknesses in your understanding by reading the inspection checklist and Al Skierkiewicz’s annual inspection thread on Chief Delphi. Teams who are able to digest this information well enough will be able to understand and respond to questions asked by the inspectors at the event. More importantly, they’ll be able to anticipate potential issues before they appear as an issue and they’ll be more successful when debating a design’s legality.
Carry a flashlight
A flashlight with fresh batteries is a key to a successful inspection. Many of the items on the inspection checklist ask whether an item is “clearly visible” and it’s easy to find the robot in violation of these criteria when it’s surrounded by a ring of people in a dimly-lit pit. Preemptively shining a light on problem areas will often eliminate any concern.
There’s a more theatrical side to inspection, too: a flashlight can be used like a laser pointer, directing your inspector’s attention to the areas you’d like it to be directed towards. However, it is important to point out to any inspectors reading this article that nefarious flashlight users may be trying to direct your attention away from areas they don’t want it to be– this practice is not recommended.
Understand that the burden of Proof is on You
Your team, and no one else, is responsible for proving that your robot is compliant with the rules. It’s important to remember that the robot starts the inspection process in an unknown state with respect to legality, and it’s up to the team to effect a change in that state until the robot becomes legal.
In contrast, consider the mindset that the robot is assumed to be in compliance with the rules until an inspector arrives and finds a flaw. This is the “legal until caught” outlook, and it’s dangerous because it places you on the defense when issues are found. It’s also potentially costly– assuming the robot is innocent until proven guilty may cause you to overlook trouble areas that may require lots of time to correct. Instead, the right mindset will lead you to look at your robot with a critical eye and preemptively eliminate anything that may even be questionable to an inspector. “Caesar’s wife must be beyond reproach.”
At the team’s final meetings before competition, engage the whole team in a mock inspection. Go through each line of the inspection checklist, challenging students to prove the robot’s legality. The fact that the robot is bagged in plastic during this time is actually beneficial to this activity because to succeed, students will need to find the right words to explain their thinking rather than just pointing at locations on the robot.
Let a student do the talking
Step far enough back to allow the students to answer the inspector’s questions, but stay close enough to the action to be able to step in and redirect the conversation if it strays off course.
Prominently display Existing Inspection Stickers
Officially, previous inspections are supposed to have no bearing on the outcome of current inspections. In reality however, the presence of old inspection stickers are a fairly reliable indicator of a successful reinspection. It’s important to note that this effect is diminished at championship events– there, everyone’s already got a valid inspection sticker from a previous event and inspectors are under extra pressure to evaluate robots from a clean slate. At the very least, old inspection stickers tell an inspector that the team has gained experience presenting their robot and establishing proof of legality.
With the robot placed in its normal position on the cart in the pit, stickers should be placed in plain sight, facing out towards the hallway, at or just below eye level. This sticker cost more than $6,000 to obtain and it’s important that the robot should wear it proudly. Team 4276, a 2012 rookie, best demonstrated the right procedure for applying your inspection sticker.
Get inspected early
On the first day of competition, your team’s foremost goal should be to maximize practice time. While an event may allow you to participate in your scheduled practice match with a “provisional” inspection, don’t take the bait. Instead, focus all effort on completing your full inspection as early as possible. If you are able to successfully complete inspection earlier than most of the other teams, you’ll gain almost unlimited access to practice matches as a “filler” robot.
By beginning the inspection process early, you’ll get access to the inspectors when they’re the most calm and least overwhelmed. Importantly, you’ll be calmer, too, which will allow you to address the inspector’s concerns without sounding defensive. Also you’ll set an example for your neighbor teams, and you’ll avoid the embarrassment of being among the last teams to be erased from the inspection station’s big whiteboard.
Organize and vacuum the pit. Have the students clean under their fingernails and stand with good posture. On Chief Delphi, Jason Brett explained how appearing to be detailed-oriented is just as important as actually being detail-oriented:
A colleague of mine would tell me he’d always have the kids wash and polish their drag car (inside and out, including the engine) before going to a race. It always helped with tech inspection because first of all it meant that the kids had been over the car and had looked at all the little things, but it also meant that when the inspectors walked up to the car they had a positive impression that care, attention and professionalism had gone into the details.
Teams that take care of the little things often have much less trouble with the big things.
Thank your inspector for identifying problems
Inspection is a value-adding process resulting in a more competitive robot and a more successful team. It’s hard to overstate this: problems found during inspection should be best seen as opportunities to improve the robot. Thank your inspectors for providing this opportunity– this is an easy way to show respect and professionalism during an interaction that’s too often acrimonious. Also, it will have the beneficial side effect of blowing your inspector’s mind.
Special tip for Pneumatics #1: Develop a Pneumatic Diagram
Arrive at the competition with a printed and laminated pneumatics diagram. Like an electrical diagram, this drawing allows readers to trace fluid paths and determine the function of various components. Experienced readers of pneumatic diagrams can also determine whether a system has any inherent safety problems based on its layout. During inspection the diagram should be used like a roadmap, starting at the compressor and steering your inspector’s attention through the connecting tubing to each downstream component. Several different symbolic languages are used to describe pneumatic systems; use a handbook (like the one referenced here) to keep your diagram internally consistent.
Special tip for Pneumatics #2: Bring the Datasheets
Download and print the catalog cuts or specification sheets of each pneumatic component – even the ones provided in the KOP. Highlight the important bits:
- Maximum Allowable Working Pressure (MAWP) is the pressure rating of the component. This pressure is not to be exceeded at any point during the testing, operation, or repair of your pneumatic system.
- Flow coefficient (Cv) is a relative measure of the size and efficiency of the component. All other things being equal, valves with greater Cv allow greater amounts of fluid to flow through them.
Refer to these datasheets during the inspection to establish the legality of any questionable parts.
Article Content Provided by: Nate Laverdure (FRC2363 Mentor)