MIL-OSI Security: Defense News: NAVFAC EXWC Mentors Youth-Based Robotics Program, Places 2nd in World Championships

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Source: United States Navy

Naval Facilities Engineering and Expeditionary Warfare Center (NAVFAC EXWC) mechanical engineer and team mentor Vincent “Vinny” Pecchia, P.E., of the Oceans Technical Department, and a team of students from across public and private institutions throughout Ventura County, joined forces for the 2021-2022 For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Robotics Competition—an annual international high school-level robotics competition where teams are required to compete using their respective robot design, built from scratch over the course of two months.

Dubbed “a Varsity Sport for the Mind™”, the FIRST Robotics Competition combines the excitement of sport with the rigors of science and technology. In its 31st season, the FIRST Robotics Competition offers high-energy, high-tech spectator sporting where teams, professionals, and young people together solve engineering design problems through specific criteria in both an intense, yet competitive environment.

Kicking off in January, this year’s FIRST Robotics Competition stakes felt higher, as the occasion marked the beginning of the first large-scale competition in over three years due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Ventura County FIRST Robotics Team, named Team 4414 HighTide of HighTide Robotics, was founded in 2018, with the goal of providing opportunities for high schools students around Ventura County to participate in a competitive and meaningful way through FIRST. Team sponsors include: The Lawrence Thomas Memorial Fund, Sessa MFG., Google, HAAS, Applied Powdercoat, and Texlon.

This year’s FIRST Robotics Competition theme—Rapid React presented by the Boeing Company—required the use of innovative engineering, creative thinking, and teamwork to reimagine the future of safe, high-speed travel, and lightning-fast deliveries to propel the next evolution of transportation forward. Comparatively, each robot had to pick up balls and shoot them into a goal, in addition to climbing a set of ascending monkey bars. Points were awarded to teams whose robots operated autonomously as programmed, shot more balls into the goals, and climbed more rungs during competition.

Team 4414 HighTide’s robot, named “Cutback”, references a surfer term used when a surfer changes direction with a turn, using their rails to go back towards the breaking part of the wave—a crucial maneuver required to enjoy the steepest part of the wave.

During the preparation portion of the season, Team 4414 HighTide met nearly 4 days or more a week, working countless late evenings prior to competition to ensure Cutback was ready to rival against its competitors. 

“The FIRST Robotics Competition is a very unique experience for our local high-school youth,” said Pecchia. “Students have the opportunity to obtain hands-on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) experience, while mentors like myself get to share our love of science and engineering with the next generation of scientists and engineers.”

Beginning March 3-6, Team 4414 HighTide, competed at the FIRST Robotics Regional Competition at Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme, CA, against 34 other teams. Out of the 35 teams competing, Team 4414 HighTide won the regional event and the “quality award”—an award that celebrates machine robustness in concept and fabrication. By achieving the quality award, Team 4414 High Tide was qualified to compete in the World Championships in Houston, TX in April.

One week later, on March 9-12, Team 4414 HighTide competed against 44 other teams in the second regional competition at Naval Base Ventura County. Success struck again where Team 4414 HighTide won the regional event and the “autonomous award”—an award given to a team that has demonstrated consistent, reliable, high performance robot operation during autonomously managed actions.

The following month, April 6 to 9, Team 4414 HighTide competed in the Aerospace Valley Regional against 35 teams. The Team won the regional event in Lancaster, CA and received the “industrial design award”—an award given to a team that demonstrates industrial design principles, striking a balance between form, function, and aesthetics.  After three exciting wins at three regional competitions, Team 4414 HighTide packed their bags, and joined 452 other teams in Houston for the World Championships.

The FIRST World Championship event took place on April 20-23 in Houston. Team 4414 HighTide was able to battle through and win the “Turing Division” and win the Quality Award, which allowed the team to move on to the final “Einstein Field” where teams competed against five other division winners. As the competition moved forward, Team 4414 HighTide continued to outperform their competitors, advancing them to the final event. After continuous dedication, Team 4414 HighTide put up a great fight and gave the crowd a series to remember as they lost the final competition match—a tough but close-scoring loss.

“This was my first year as a mentor, and because of this, I did not fully realize the magnitude of passion and dedication from the students until I saw them crying tears of joy for making it to the Einstein championship event. It was inspiring,” said Pecchia.

Throughout each competition, teams were required to describe their quality plan—for example, how their design ensures robustness throughout the entire competition. Each machine competing also demonstrated quality workmanship, job specific sub-systems, wiring, and aesthetic design aspects, among other things. During competition, each machine withstood the rigors of competition, which include maintaining functionality—including the use of risk mitigation measures. Overall, the collaborative effort of building the machine therein contributed to Team 4414 HighTide’s success.

Teams not only abided by strict measures during robot development, but were also challenged to raise funds, design a team brand, and hone teamwork skills, in addition to building an industrial-size robot to play a difficult field game against like-minded competitors.

NAVFAC EXWC has been involved with FIRST for several years—this being the first year a team has made it all the way to the world championship division.
“When I was in school the education system had engineering flipped around; rather, you’d learn theory first then figure out how to put it into use later, permitting you had access to the needed equipment (something which rarely students did). Today, STEM and technology educators, and the education system at large have really turned this around! Students now have access to programmable microprocessors, open source computer-aided design, and other essential programs, not to mention a myriad of cheap parts where they can create whatever they desire only limited by their imaginations,” said Pecchia.

“Today, STEM programs are bridging a gap that was not prominent many years ago. Now, students have access to the equipment, and mentorship from seasoned engineers to cultivate a simple idea into a physical, working-end product,” said Pecchia.

Pecchia’s desire to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers is not out of the ordinary. In fact, this year alone, 2,859 veteran and 176 rookie teams, comprised of 80,000 students from 26 countries participated in this FIRST Robotics Competition festivities internationally.

“You can make a career working for the Department of Defense as a civilian,” said Pecchia. “Part of my mentorship extended beyond robotics, and rather, educating students about the opportunities available to them should they chose to pursue a career in STEM. The Navy and armed forces at large offer a variety of STEM-related career fields. In fact, commands like NAVFAC EXWC are actively recruiting students who study STEM right out of college.”

Students who participate in the FIRST Robotics Competition are eligible for roughly $100 million in scholarships each season. These scholarships are awarded on merit alone, and have nothing to do with how well a robot performs during the competition season.

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