One of the cool things about the VEX Robotics Competition is the year long competition season. This allows for a wide variety of programs (i.e. summer camps, fall only builds, winter only builds, etc). The folks at the REC Foundation have gone out of their way to structure the overall competition in such a way that it is accessible to a wide variety of teams (including teams who don’t go to school at the same time as North American teams). There are nearly as many ways to implement a program as their are programs in existence.
Two of the cool things about the VEX Robotics Design System are the way it allows users to quickly iterate their designs, and the way it provides a robotics platform that is easily accessible to students. Students can literally build anything they can imagine, then rip it all apart and start again from scratch.
One of the cool things about the world we live in, is the growing prevalence of the internet. It allows for instantaneous sharing of information – ideas, design concepts, prototyping videos, CAD models, detailed pictures, competition rankings & results, match videos: all available at the click of a mouse. Students from around the world can collaborate with each other in a way I could only dream of when I was growing up.
One of the results of all these cool things coming together in one program, is something I call “design convergence.”
At the beginning of the competition season we see a wide variety of robot types, then as time goes on more and more teams begin to share their designs publicly and other teams begin to iterate based on lessons they’ve learned (and things they’ve seen).
Most teams don’t copy robots verbatim, they just take aspects and “pieces of inspiration” from other teams (i.e. “I love how team X did that roller claw, and how team Y did that drive base, and how team Z did that arm – I bet we can take those three pieces and do them all better.”) In my opinion, this can be a VERY cool thing.
As the season goes on, we see this process repeat itself over and over again. The robot which was inspired by three other robots, is then itself a small piece of inspiration in another robot.
The VEX community is essentially crowd-sourcing the “perfect” design for the new game over the course of the season. Of course, since there is no perfect solution, we end up with a variety of different designs – less variety than when we started, but still variety. We’re just seeing a sort of convergence. The more we iterate, the less bad ideas remain in the community.
This iterative, convergent process can (and usually does) provide an extremely fulfilling and educational design experience for students on a VRC team. It is powerful stuff, and analogous to real-life design.
Of course, there are still some teams who just copy bolt-for-bolt without really understanding what they’re doing – but in my experience, it is easy to tell after a few seconds of conversation which teams went through a powerful design process, and which teams didn’t. The results tend to show that as well (the team that deeply understands their robot and its functions, has spent a full season playing with it, enhancing it, and putting blood/sweat/tears into it will almost always beat the team that hasn’t).
Some games have more convergence than others; I don’t know how much convergence we’ll see in VEX Sack Attack, but I’m confident the game will provide some unique challenges to the community. I know I’m excited to see some incredible robots come out of this season, and I know a lot of students are going to have a great experience creating them.