Thursday, July 7, 2016


The official results have been posted by Raymond.  The Mercersburg Rescue Mini team secured 2nd place after the Aussie's tied for 1st place! 

Congratulations to Conner, Caroline and Suky!

Dr. Maurer
Assistant Head of School for Academic Affairs

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Final Post

From Dr. J:

As you can see from previous photos, the individual parts were assembled in a larger arena that requires the robots to be able to connect together the different elements into one run.  We get 1 point for each pallet that we cross from one end to the other; you can earn a maximum of 2 points/pallet, one for each direction. You only get points for a single continuous run; if you pick up the bot, the score resets to zero.  Your final score is the longest run of pallets that you can put together.  Again, all driving is done by looking through the camera, the driver cannot directly see the robot or the course.

We had two solid runs, we navigated a good chunk of the course continuously, and were able to pass some of the vision tests that check if your camera has sufficient rsolution and flexible movement to read small print written at the bottom of a tube (about the size of a small juice glass).

Conner had a couple of challenging moments while driving where the robot flipped over and he was quite disoriented.  He was able to sort out where he was and what he was looking at, and then used the arm on the robot to right himself and keep going.  I was really impressed with how calm he was when he got confused, and how he was able to think through how to connect what he could see with what that meant about where the robot must be.

There were quite a few specatators for the later runs as we were among the last events to be done, so lots of people came over to watch.  This didn't seem to affect Conner's focus at all while he was driving.

The students traded a lot of patriotic gifts with other teams:  we came home with fans from the Japanese teams, clip-on Koala bears from the Australians, and others.  We gave away flags (the mini ones we brought turned out to have only 41 stars, but I guess that is close enough) red, white, and blue leis and other things.

We are already planning for next year.  We have some notes from this year's particpants to give to next year's group, along with all the code (in several versions) and designs that we used.  Caroline and Conner have visits planned to talk to the students, we hope to get Suky back sometime, and I have lots of ideas as well. 

Auf Widersehen,
Dr. J

From Dr. Maurer:

While every RoboCup trip holds a special place in my heart, I think this year might be my favorite.  Everything about it was nearly perfect.  The students took on a high-level challenge and were willing to be pioneers in a brand new competition.  After watching this year, the RoboCup organization has decided that this competition will be part of the Major League, not RoboCup Junior.  That means that they feel the quality of work is worthy of the Major League.  This is something about which the students should be amazingly proud.  I have a clip below that explains where this competition falls in the grand scheme of robotics rescue in the world.  Essentially, first responders need small rescue robots and the Department of Homeland Security and the National Institute of Standards and Techonolgy (NIST) are using this league to gather information on the viability of that technology.  And, Mercersburg students contributed to that effort!


I might also add that I think Caroline was the first female to participate in this league and that is fantastic.  She certainly was the only girl participating this year. 

The people were amazing.  We got to see old friends and make new ones.  The connections we forged will likely last for a long, long time.  It was wonderful to have Carol Casparian join us for part of this trip.  She was a great source of support for the team.  Marcus is a fantastic travel companion and colleague.  He is absolutely brilliant and loves this world as much as I do.

Finally, the students were exceptionally dedicated.  It was a true privilege to watch them compete.  The team of Conner, Caroline and Suky will be the gold standard of teamwork as I look back on this year.

Until next year,
Julia Maurer '90
Assistant Head of School for Academic Affairs
Robotics Teacher

Thoughts after the Competition

Five electrical fires, four days of competition, three exhausted students,
two soldering iron burns, and one trusty robot.

After a long week filled with late nights and enthusiastic Australians,
Robocup 2016 has come to an end. With only about a month to work on our
robot, I'm thrilled with what my team was able to put together. Our robot,
lovingly named Professor, went through countless changes and codes
throughout the week. We ended up ditching our original design and throwing
on some wheels lent to us by our Aussie friends, pulling out much of the
obsolete wiring along with it. I was sad that we put so much time into a
design that didn't work, but I couldn't complain about the results that we
saw after the change.

I couldn't have asked for better teammates. Suky and Caroline both put a
lot of time and energy into this project and I feel incredibly lucky to
have such knowledgable and fun partners throughout this experience. The
three of us had so many late nights working between the school robotics lab and staying up to
ungodly hours in the early morning to fix our code in Germany. Despite all
the work put in to this project, both of them always had an unbreakable
positive attitude that I wouldn't have made it to the end of the week

This year's competition was much different from last year's. Germany was a
much more organized host than China, and this year both the high school
and university levels were in the same place, so we were able to walk
around and enjoy some humanoid soccer matches or life-size search and
rescue missions. We competed in an event that was kind of off the grid. It
wasn't part of Robocup Junior, but also wasn't really part of the major
league either (although next year it will be). Due to the experimental
nature of the event, it wasn't an official competition and more of a
collaborative experience using competition as a channel for communication
and progress. This meant for a laid-back and casual environment that was
quite the contrast to the event I was involved in last Robocup.

When it came to our official scored runs, we were ready. I was the driver,
and Suky and Caroline were the spotters. They were the unsung heroes that
kept everything running smoothly. Thanks to them, I never had to worry
about tangled wires or accidental flips.   If there's one thing people
should know about this event, it's that controlling the robot through the
camera on the robot alone is SO much harder than it seems. Especially when
your camera is a low quality webcam filming at 10 frames per second on an
arm that you can't tell the position it's in. We made do, and I got better
and better at piloting the more we were able to practice.

Every time I come to Robocup I can't help but leave feeling incredibly
inspired. There's so much creative energy between the competing teams, and
I always have copious amounts of ideas of how I can adapt what I see in
other people's designs to make my own designs better. As I continue to
study engineering at the University of Virginia, I may try to start a
Robocup club or something if the sort in order to continue coming to these
events finding limitless inspiration.

At the end of the day, I have to thank Dr. Maurer for getting me hooked on
engineering, Dr. Jaiclin for his incredible patience, knowledge, and
insane amount of hours working with us, and Mercersburg Academy as a whole
for providing me with these life changing experiences you can't really
find anywhere else.

If I were to give advice to any younger students reading this post that
are interested in creating things, solving problems, and other general
engineering principles, it would be this: the same people who build with
Legos for hours as children grow up to be the people who build the bridges
we drive on and the planes we fly on. Never let difficulty or lack of
understanding get in the way of pursuing what you love to do. Mercersburg
has so many opportunities to explore and learn about your passions, so
don't be afraid to take them. Take it from someone in between building
Legos and building bridges: it will be worth it.

- Conner Caruso, Mercersburg Class of 2016

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Competition Day 4 - Part 2

After a hard hitting week, the final day of competition was upon us. The entire week was filled with little to no sleep and our brains were fried. Pulling together what little strength we had left, we found the courage to put our robot to the test. Conner absolutely smashed the first run, driving like we had never seen him drive before. The stakes were high and tension arose every time the robot make the smallest move. At one point the robot flipped completely over and it took all my strength not to say anything as it struggled like a desperate ladybug. Of course, we could have called for a reset, but knowing Conner he would figure out how to get it running again, which he did, perfectly. We finished that run with 8 points, even though it could have been 10, but a wall had gotten in the way of completing our last desired section of the course. With a round of applause and hugs, the time ran out and we received our first compliment from Raymond, the director of the Mini Recuse challenge,which is a rare thing. "Nice run, guys," he said. Those words will forever live in a special place in my heart.

After a celebratory lunch and some strategizing on how to improve our score, we hit the course for the second run. With a strategic start, we were off to the races, but those races did not favor us. With a split second decision by Conner, unknown to Suky and I, our entire course plan changed. We skipped an entire section of the course in fear of crushing another part of the course. Which then lead to confusion and destruction. We ran into a wall and our robot almost flipped, nine times. We quickly worked our way through parts we knew we could do and tried to beat our last score, but with everything going wrong, we ended with the same 8 point score. No compliments were to be heard this time, but we knew we had time to figure out how to surpass our score for our third and final run.

When we got back to the table we talked more strategy. Everything was going well, until the Bluetooth stopped pairing. All of our hearts stopped as we realized we had no control over the robot. Trying to brainstorm ideas we thought, we would be able to fix it, as we had already solved any problem that stood in our way. But as time wore on and our final run time came close, we realized, it just wasn't worth stressing over. So after some last ditch efforts to fix our robot, we decided it would be alright to forfeit our last run and just take the 8 points. But we were proud of our work and the amount of effort we put fourth made this entire experience worth it.

Looking back, we talked about everything we would do differently, and even made plans for a new robot design, which will hopefully see the light with next years mini rescue team. I also hope to stay in close contact with whoever those students are, because this is not the kind of thing I want to just give up on. I may be seeing more theater next year than robotics, but I hope to continue exploring this interest, and I highly hope that I get to experience another International RoboCup in the future, because it would be an absolute shame to leave something as great as this behind.

Saying goodbye to all the friends we had made was certainly the hardest part, although saying goodbye to our robot for the last time, was a close second. Leaving the people who reminded you why you are doing this, who helped pick you up when there seemed to be no answer to why your wheels weren't working, who gave you their wheels without a second thought, who took time away from their codes just to help you look at yours, and who were all around good people, was immensely hard. It was less than a week, yet an experience like this will forever impact my life, possibly even make me look at majors and minors in this area. I will never forget the laid back Americans, respectful Japanese, beautiful Croatians, or cheeky Australians. And I will never forget the kind of inspiration that came from being in a room full of proud nerds. The same nerds that helped me realize one of my life long loves and accept the fact that I am, and always be, one of them, proudly.

Thank you!
Caroline Casparian '16
Robotics Student

Competition Day 4 - Part 1

A blog post will follow with more detail.  But, this next series of posts shows the first full ten minute run in its entirety in the full course.  I had to break up the video into sections to be able to upload it, because the file is so large.  It is important to note that students did not have to touch or reset the robot at all and that is a big deal in this competition.

Part One:


Part Two:


Part Three:


Part Four:


Monday, July 4, 2016

Competition Day Three

We had a much better day today.  Conner is really getting a hang of the driving.  Although the robots are not autonomous, the only thing you can see is what you can see through the camera that is mounted on the robot.  It's taken some time to interpret that view and understand what it is telling you, especially if the robot falls over or something else unexpected happens.  We've had much better luck with the new wheels we are using, and we've turned the robot around so we can actually keep the wheels in view and see where we are going more easily.

We've also adjusted the controls so that they are easier to use.  When we started with the PS4 controller, we only knew how to detect whether or not a button had been pressed, we couldn't tell if it was still held down or not.  So, we programmed the robot to start up the motor when we pressed it once, and then turn the motor off if it was pressed a second time.  This is ok, but hard to do precise movements this way.  Conner did some research in the library, and figured out how to tell if the button is being held down, so Caroline re-built all the code for the controller and Conner and Suky re-built all the code for the motors to run when the button is pressed, and not when the button is not being pressed.

We had a nice visit from one of our one-year German students, Anna Lisa, who spent her 10th grade year at Mercersburg Academy in the 14-15 school year.  She was a stalwart cheering section during the day, and joined us for dinner afterwards.

We've learned so much that will help us next year.  We have a much better sense of the present state of the event, and the future of the event.  We've gotten a ton of information from the teams that have been working on this for longer than we have, and shared some of our ideas as well.  We've had a lot of fun with the Australian teams, they are really great to work with.  This event has been really special in its working environment.  We compete, and we want to do as well as we can, but we also want the teams around us to do as well as they can, too. There has been a ton of sharing that has elevated what everyone is doing.

We were treated to a couple of interactions with the Major (university and corporate) event today.  First, we saw a presentation by a retired county sheriff who worked for more than a decade on a bomb squad in California. He talked about the role of robots in bomb squad work, and how robots like ours would fit into the overall scheme of how a bomb squad works: as low-cost robots to scout a dangerous site before sending in the big expensive bots, to enter places where the big bots can't enter, as a second pair of eyes to give the operators an overview from another direction to better guide a bigger bot, or as a nimble bot that can take a fall and still be operable.  Second, we went and toured some of the Major teams' courses, which are exactly the same as ours, just 4x larger.  We saw some of the events that our event will have in the future.

Auf Wiedersehen,
Dr. J

Friday, July 1, 2016

Competition Day Two

Day two of competition started much better than day one.  Today was full of practice runs and some individual scoring runs of the different rescue challenge elements.  The team spent most of the day altering the design to add large 3-D printed wheels coated in rubber paint and removing items that were no longer needed on the robot due to the change in communication plan in the competition due to the wifi noise interference in the venue (exactly what made us apprehensive earlier in the week, as I alluded to in an earlier post).

Yesterday, the team had to present their design concept to the rest of the group in a public setting.  I video taped that short discussion and have posted it below:


Today, the team was interviewed by a camera crew visiting the venue.

The team had some success tackling the various challenges and spent a good bit of time coding new elements to make the driving process easier.  The team let me drive Professor for awhile this afternoon and that was great fun.  I was even able to do a couple laps in the palate!

I enjoy the time when I get to visit with our team and see their progress.  My days are different from theirs in that I spend most of my days planning, building, and running the line rescue challenge at the international level.  This was also day two of the line competition and it is turning into a fierce fight for the top spot.  The event requires my time to make sure the competition is fair, that the line judges are doing their jobs correctly, and that the teams are playing by the rules.  We have to watch the runs, review the code, and interview the teams.  But, I enjoy the work tremendously as I get to meet and interact with young people from all over the world and learn about the different robotics programs in different countries.  I also have the opportunity to work with people from all over the world in organizing the event and they have become very good friends of mine over the years of participating in RoboCup.

Tonight, the local organizing committee sponsored a party for the students participating in RoboCup junior.  They went all out.  They created a beach by shipping in sand and creating a sand volleyball court and "beach" area compete with beach chairs and umbrellas.  They had a huge bounce house, segways to test out, a mechanical bull, and tons of great German food.  We had a blast with our friends (old and new) that we have met over the course of the competition.

'Till tomorrow,
Julia Maurer '90
Assistant Head of School for Academic Affairs and Robotics Teacher