At the start of each season, we set aside about a month for analyzing the game manual, reading forum discussions, brainstorming, strategy, and scoring point analysis. At the end of this period, we decide on a strategy and general idea of what mechanisms we want for the robot.
We then move on to the prototyping stage. With our chosen strategy in mind, we prototype our ideas, test them, and improve on them. Team members usually work solo or in groups of two to develop their ideas. We then share them and build on each others designs to see what is effective. Once we find something we like that works well, we move to the next stage.
Now, we enter the beta build stage. With the prototypes we like most, we build a basic robot following the designs we previously decided on. This starts with making more detailed sketches and improved prototypes. With this, we make a beta build of the robot in about a month, in what we call “RoboCamp,” where we meet almost every day. This robot is not meant to be perfect and it will not be kept for the rest of the season. We try to take it to an early season tournament to scope out it’s competitive abilities. We then examine the robot’s performance at both an early season tournaments and in timed runs in the lab. This helps us see what needs improvements in the next build.
This step is actually very important, despite it boiling down to making a throwaway robot. The beta build lets us spot any flaws in our design and/or strategy early in the season. With this knowledge, we can make changes to these things before they become larger issues. This solves a lot of problems that could grow into larger dilemmas down the road where they are hard to change.
The next step is the competition build! With what we learned from the beta build, we create a V2.0 of it, all the while fixing anything undesirable, unsound, or problematic from the original beta design. What we end up with is our first real competition-ready robot.
From here we make continuous improvements based on any problems we encounter. This might mean small tweaks, subsystem replacements, or even complete redesigns. Sometimes we have realized that our robot is fundamentally flawed in ways that make it unable to keep up with the competition. In this situation, a rebuild is our best chance to step up our game. A rebuild like this most often happens over winter break. This build is much less difficult than the first, as it isn’t a “start from square one.” This is because the metagame has already started to emerge, and we usually have an idea of what works, what doesn’t, and what we want to have.