Size Matters | 7 Profiles of Small and Effective Robots

It’s easy to advocate to design for large, powerful robots in the name of defense, but to understand the game so well that building a small, nimble, effective robot is the right move takes skill and effort. That being said, what can we learn from some effective robots? Without further ado, let’s dive in.

Modern Miracles

In the 2019 season, two California powerhouses decided to do things a little differently, and their changes were both turning heads and unrolling banners.

Team 971 had an uncharacteristically simple robot, or so people thought. Their robot was a well engineered, light, and nimble. Their suction mechanism on an armavator left them able to quickly and effectively score both game pieces before the dual-purpose wheeled hatch intake took over. In addition, they opened the competition season with a difficult to replicate and breaktaking collapsing fork foot design that left them with three regional titles this season, as well as both a regional and a divisional engineering award.

With a staggeringly simple 2CIM drive per side, a carbon fiber elevator with lots of 3d printed blocks, and an arm that made 971’s control lessons from 2018 shine, it was no wonder they did well. For your learning benefit, all of their build photos are available on their website; an invaluable resource for those yearning to get back to learning.

Nestled deep inside of Southern California though was 2017 & 2019 World Champion Team 973. Showing up Week 1 in the 2019 season at the Orange County Regional, they showed off a vision alignment system on their small and fast robot that out-cycled most robots at the event. Seeding 3rd, they were an obvious choice for the #1 seed alliance captain, The Beach Bots.

Taking a look at their reveal video, we can see a 5 second Hab Level 3 climb, which absolutely terrified most folks competing with and against them, but a keen eye may notice a hatch panel mechanism that quickly gained popularity, following in the steps of some other California teams being quickly copied.

Down Under Design

Now that we’ve taken a healthy look at the California girls, let’s take a trip down under and see what 4613, the Barker Redbacks have been making that inspired a whole host of tiny robot designs.

In the 2017 offseason, 4613 showed up the Australia’s premiere off-season with their minibot, “8613”. This fast gear-cycler barely registered as more than a blur, and did an airship climb blindingly quickly.

A keen eye may notice that this robot has a very similar floor gear-pickup mechanism to 254, and forgoes the ability to load from the feeder station entirely. Additionally, with only four small wheels, the robot’s transmission needed far less reduction than an equivalent larger robot with larger wheels.

Taking this lesson into the 2018 season, they did it again with a tiny robot capable of scoring cubes both in switch and scale, with a clever zip-tie method to break the vertical plane of the switch to ensure they don’t get penalized for “launching” per the 2018 rules. Their pneumatic puncher was incredibly well designed, as as the stationary gear for the arm to ride on. Their pneumatics actually made use of a well packaged multi-gallon tank to avoid a mess of Clippard tanks. This brilliant robot design lead them to earning a banner at the Southern Cross Regional, as well as Finalists at the South Pacific Regional. Good job mates!

Not Everything Is Bigger in Texas

Of course, of course, we couldn’t forget about Texas. If we did, they’d never let us forget it! So let’s take a dive to where they know how to cook some mean BBQ.

In the 2016 season, both 3310 and 1296 realized that being able to go under the low bar was an essential objective to getting the Rank Point objective, and as such designed to go under the low bar. At the same time though, both robots also took a minimalist approach to robot design, a photo of 1296 barely bigger than a boulder prominent in most Texans (and strategists) minds.

Some parallels can be drawn to 125’s robot from the same season with their pneumatic launcher, but that robot wasn’t quite as small to make the cut. On the other hand is 3310, who after making a rather large robot for the 2015 season, arrived at an elegant and tiny robot with many small wheels to handle defenses.

“Turn Left Here”

Now, let’s take a step back in time to the 2008 FIRST Robotics Competition game, FIRST Overdrive. You launched a massive ball over a hurdle and drove in circles, no seriously. Watch the game animation. Some teams realized if they drove really fast they could outscore most hurdlers, and one of them took it to the Championship Finals and won it big.

Team 148 The Robowranglers, as one of the few Original & Sustaining teams doesn’t have to work hard to earn their ticket to Championship, but they do year after year. In 2008, they built a three wheel track-lapper that was driven in such a way that the IFI controller (the roboRIO of the era) was pushed to the max. They managed to get on an alliance with 217 and 1114 in 2008, and well, the rest is history.


In that same year though, team 1519 realized they could do much of the same with a simple, ackermann-steered robot, not unlike a car. “Speed racer” was shown off at a few offseason events in New England (after LRIs shot down in-season use), and eventually spurred the original definition of ROBOT. Small, fast, and really good at scoring.

Honorable Mention

Finally, we take one final return to California to make our trip a round-trip one, with 5012’s offseason rebuild “Nagini.” After an embarrassing bumper-snake incident during the competition season they rebuilt their robot focused on fast gear cycling, with a in-frame floor pickup, active gear release, and a really high floor speed.

With all four wheels being omni, they could essentially drift their robot into scoring on the pegs, which lead them to some offseason success. A keen eye may notice some similarity to 558’s in-season rebuild that we covered then on the blog though. After all, steal from the best and invent the rest.


Of the robots we took a look at today, they all had a few common identifiable traits that made them do well both in-season and outside of it. These intrepid engineers built light and nimble, but ensured they could control it well at all times.

Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.

– Ty Tremblay (FRC 319 Mentor)

They made clever design choices that enabled them to build even lighter (fewer wheels, lower reductions via smaller outer diameters), and took inspiration from others to make their robots that much better.

Building small doesn’t make sense in every game (2017, for example. Some teams opted to focus on fuel in-season and ignored it completely in the off-season like 5012 and 148), but it can be an incredible advantage if designed well. (973 and 971 for example.) And sometimes, it’s just plain fun.



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