Dreadbots Choose to Swerve in Their 13th Season
By - Brea Mahoney and Henry Collin, Dreadbot Reporters
FIRST Robotics is a high school robotics competition with over 3000 teams worldwide. While the objective and theme change annually, games are task-orientated (scoring game pieces, climbing and balancing, etc.) and focus as much on cooperation as they do on competition. For over 30 years, FIRST has been inspiring students to pursue opportunities in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics).
The Dexter Dreadbots was formed in 2011 to compete in FIRST’s national FRC (First Robotics Challenge) competition with only a few students and a desire to learn more about robotics. 13 years later, much has changed for the Dexter Dreadbots. Says Jennifer Bryson, Dreadbot Lead Mentor, “We’ve grown from having 7 to 8 students to having more than 7 to 8 subteams, with students on each of them.” Despite the many changes the team has undergone, the Dreadbots remain as passionate and dedicated to robotics as ever. The team motto “Building People by Building Robots” serves as a daily guide to how the team works. Added Bryson, “Our focus is not purely on the process of making a robot, but on growing together…both as mentors and students, to be prepared to better impact our communities.”
The Dreadbots have developed into a consistently high-performing team, having made 8 appearances in the State Championships and 6 appearances in the World Championships during their 13 seasons of competition. The 28 students and 20 mentors on the current team are a diverse group of people from both technical and non-technical backgrounds. The team has recently benefited from a vastly improved build space within the Dexter Schools facilities, and ready access to the fabulous robotics facility at Chelsea Schools.
Coming into the 2023 FIRST Robotics season, the Dexter Dreadbots understood they needed to adapt their approach. Despite a strong showing during their two 2022 District events (but missing the cutoff for States by a fraction of a point), the team’s focus on designing a bot that could accomplish everything on the field led to a design that proved unfocused and difficult to maintain. Their initial goal for the 2023 season was to build a bot that was simple and robust. Students wanted to design it to excel in one aspect of the game to avoid the excessive complexity that had previously burdened the team. Another strong team desire was to lay a foundation for improving the team in seasons to come, including a greater emphasis on CAD (Computer Aided Design) and 3D printing. Additionally, there was a push for more student-driven decisions.
Each year’s FRC game is different, requiring entirely new robots to accomplish different tasks. The 2023 game had a theme built around energy sustainability, and was called “Charged Up.” In this game, alliances consisting of 3 teams must pick up game pieces, (rubber traffic cones and inflated cubes), and place them on their corresponding section of a grid, consisting of rows of shelves ascending in height and reach. During the end game, robots must balance on an unstable tilting “charging station.” During FIRST’s January game reveal, the Dreadbot team recognized that they could go further with a simple design than initially anticipated, making a robot that could do most of the field tasks well while keeping the simple and robust concepts at the heart of the design. While recognizing the risk of “mission creep,” the team voted to expand the scope of their design. The Dreadbots had 7 weeks to design and build a competition-ready robot.
After spending the first 2 weeks discussing potential designs as a team and constructing many prototypes to demonstrate their visions, the Dreadbots decided to go with their traditional steel welded frame robot with an internal intake and a 3-stage extending frame, capable of carrying both cube and cone game pieces to any of their appropriate nodes. With the help of the CAD subteam, responsible for making 3D models of the robot and its parts, they were able to determine the dimensions of individual parts prior to committing to their construction. This allowed the team to continually evolve their designs while minimizing the precious time spent building physical models. As the Dreadbots steadily approached the 1st week of competitions, they had just about completed the robot, a reliable machine with the capability to interact with every node and balance on the charge station with good speed and accuracy. Simple, yet effective.
The Dreadbots started their season at the Jackson District Event, held on March 2-4 at Spring Arbor College. While the Dreadbots ranked highly on the scoreboard by the end of qualifying matches (4th of 40 teams) and captained the #3 alliance (bowing out in semi-finals), they came to realize that they lacked a critical component on their bot that might bring them into contention for the World Championship: Swerve modules. Swerve drive is a drivetrain system consisting of a steerable driven wheel on each corner of the bot. These wheels can move independently and rotate a full 360 degrees, allowing for an incredible amount of mobility that other systems could not compete against while retaining speed and stability. A pivotal part of the prototyping phase in the Dreadbot’s build season was determining if they could use Swerve drive, but the programming subteam concluded that swerve could not be reliably programmed in time for their 1st competition. Thus, the Dreadbots went with the familiar and rugged 8 wheel drive skid steer. While reliable and fast in a straight line, it can’t strafe diagonally. Skid steer’s limited maneuverability made it more vulnerable to defensive bots who have swerve in this year’s game (which rewarded swift and maneuverable robots).
Taking note of the team’s defensive weakness when going against some of the better teams and alliances, team members decided to pursue coding Swerve on a practice bot, named “Bebop” after the TV show “Cowboy Bebop.” While the team continued to tweak the current bot to correct minor issues noticed at Jackson, the programming sub-team balanced both tuning the autonomous code and constructing the swerve code during and outside of build time. As their next competition approached at Bellville, the swerve code had progressed to the point that it became a real possibility for it to be implemented on the robot before States. However, the mood shifted to worry as the mechanical subteam assessed the situation and determined a daunting issue; to implement swerve, the team would have to construct an entirely new robot from scratch.
The Dreadbots continued their strong performance at their next District Event, held on March 16-18 at Belleville High School. Competing against much more advanced robots, the team still ranked 10th during the qualification matches and was the first pick for the 4th alliance. The Dreadbot’s alliance advanced into the quarter-finals before being eliminated. During this competition, the team also received the prestigious Industrial Design Award, which celebrates the team deemed by the judges that best strikes a balance “between form, function, and aesthetics.” This award added ranking points for the Dreadbots to qualify for the State Championship, and was a strong confirmation of how well the team succeeded in their aim to make a robot that was “simple, yet effective.” As icing on the cake, team co-captain Penelope Babe won the prestigious Dean's List award, based on a written essay and in-person interview, as the individual among the 40 teams present who best demonstrated contribution to their team.
With these two strong finishes, it became apparent that the Dreadbots would qualify (ranked at 112) for the extremely competitive Michigan State Championship event, held at Saginaw Valley State University for the 160 top teams in the largest (nearly 500 teams) and toughest state competition in FIRST Robotics. Work immediately started on CADing a proposed design for an all-new robot. With spring break approaching rapidly, the team would be forced into a complete crunch as they lost manpower to vacations and trips. However, with drive and passion from all subteams, not to mention considerable programming help from Chelsea (Team #1502, “Technical Difficulties”), it was all hands on deck as the Dreadbots went into overdrive to complete the new robot before States.
Despite the absence of many of the team’s mechanical mentors, the Dreadbots made significant progress in their first week. The students welded the frame, mounted the swerve modules, wired the new electrical board, and were soon able to begin testing the new robot. Compared to the nearly 7 weeks of work that had gone into building the initial robot, the swerve bot had only taken 2 weeks to complete, a number that astonished the experienced team mentors. “I was concerned, since we were going into spring break at the time… about being able to provide the level of support that was required,” said Lori Sprague, Dreadbot Mentor, “but it also made me feel proud that [the students] had the skills to do it.” With only minor tuning ahead of them, the Dreadbots came together just after spring break to make a crucial decision. Were they to stick with their familiar, reliable skid-steer bot, or gamble on their potentially higher performing, but untested swerve bot? Despite the potential risk, the students unanimously voted to continue with the swerve bot. Said team Mechanical Lead, Hanne Nielson, “Even if we don’t [go to World’s], I would rather perform with swerve and say that we built a robot in two weeks rather than go with the safe option and then inevitably be disappointed when we don’t do as well as we thought we could have.” Added team Programming Lead, Calvin Ophoff, “I think with the [skid steer] bot, we have the potential to do well, but with the swerve bot, we have the potential to do better.” Cahne Walters, Co-Captain and Lead Driver agreed, stating “I felt as if we wouldn’t be able to compete on the same level as all the other robots there without a more robust drive train… we hit our potential with the [skid steer] bot.”
Almost immediately after the team made this crucial decision, the bot had to be packed into the trailer and sent to the State Championship. As a result, the programming subteam did not have enough time to fully test their code for the autonomous period, the first 15 seconds of the game when the robot is controlled solely by code. Nor did the mechanical subteam have time to properly fine-tune the robot or check for any major failure modes. While the Dreadbots were excited about the opportunity to compete at States, they understood that their work wasn’t done quite yet. The second the doors opened to the pits on the first day of competition, the team jumped into action, painstakingly fixing, building, adjusting, testing, rewriting, rewiring, and everything in between to ensure that the robot would be ready for their first match. Even with 8 hours to finish the bot, the drive team and programmers were at the practice field testing and revising autonomous code until the very last minute. Their hard work, however, paid off. After two high-performing matches, the Dreadbots finished the first day of competition in 3rd place.
The Dreadbots started the 2nd day of competition strong with another high-performing win, holding onto their 3rd place ranking. However, the team quickly began to realize how tough the competition in the Ford division was. They suffered a very close loss in their 4th match, with a difference of only 4 points, knocking them down to 5th place. The next several matches continued to prove challenging, with untested autonomous code and a failure in one of the swerve modules impacting their performance. Even after a close win in their 8th match, the team was knocked down into 13th place. Still, the Dreadbots remained optimistic about their chances in alliance selections (for Finals), working tirelessly to address any issues that cropped up. However, luck was not on their side. During the next few matches, a faulty pneumatic fixture and a damaged intake system from a violent on-field collision impacted the drive team’s ability to score. Furthermore, programming was having issues with a replacement gyroscope, which they relied on for autonomous code and field orientation. Despite working hard to fix these issues, the team struggled to compensate for these mechanical and programming failures against faster, more reliable robots. They finished their qualification matches in 23rd place with a record of 5-7-0. While the Dreadbots had come far in their season, they were unable to secure a position in an alliance, preventing them from continuing to FRC’s World Championship.
It wasn’t how the Dreadbots wanted to end the 2023 season, but the students did their best to remain positive about the situation. According to Calvin Ophoff, “Even though we’re disappointed that we didn’t do as well as we wanted at States, we’re in a much better place as a team now that we can use swerve in the future.” Despite not qualifying for Worlds, the team had a strong season to look back on, and an even stronger future ahead of them. Team Co-Captain Penelope Babe added, “This team has grown so much this season. Not only do we now have the ability to do swerve, but this was a student-led decision and could not have been done without incredible determination from everyone involved. I look forward to next season and what our team will do!”
Does this activity sound appealing to you or a student you know? Programs are available in Dexter for K-8 in the Fall through Dexter Community Ed, contact Shari Lindskov at DHSDreadbotOutreach@gmail.com for further information on all FIRST programs.