McNeese Robotics Heads to VEX U Robotics World Championship

After an excellent showing at the VEX U Qualifying Tournament held in Houston, Texas, the McNeese State University robotics team is preparing to compete with its robot, “The Mystery Machine,” in the VEX U Robotics World Championship May 3-5 in Dallas, Texas.

Every year, VEX U competitions present a new challenge to elementary, high school and college-level students in the form of a game. Participating teams must build a robot that they think stands the best chance of winning, and since the game changes every year, each team must start from scratch.

This year’s game is called “Tipping Point” and is played on a 12’x12’ square field. Robots from two teams race to the center of the field to pick up plastic “goals” and place them on a seesawing platform at the edge of the field. The robot must place and balance the goals before the time runs out.

At the collegiate level, the robot starts with a 45-second autonomous period, where it operates fully on its own programming, followed by a 75-second period where the robot is piloted by the team. Teams can also place small rings on the goals to score even more points. Teams that rank high enough on the leaderboard or win specific awards at regional competitions then move on to the world championship to battle in a more difficult version of “Tipping Point” against other winners.

McNeese’s team is comprised of electrical engineering juniors Hunter Guidry, Joseph Slater and Jeffery Brazzell and chemical engineering junior Michael Boudreaux. Supported by McNeese Endowed Professorship funds awarded to assistant professor of computer science and the coach for the competitive robotics team, Dr. Catherine Anderson, the team has participated in regional competitions before and often support VEX programs at local middle and high schools by helping student teams and judging competitions. However, this will be the first time the team has made it to the world championship.

“Mike, Joseph and Jeffery are more nervous but I’m excited,” says Guidry. “I’ll probably get nervous as soon as the day comes but I’m ready to do even better than we did in Houston.”

Slater and Brazzell were responsible for building “The Mystery Machine” and say they faced challenges from the outset.

“The hardest part was making a build that would support enough weight,” says Slater. “The goals aren’t light and the challenge is to have enough support on your structure to lift and carry things while still being faster than your opponents. In this game, if your opponent is faster than you, you’re going to lose.”

“There’s a bunch of design processes going in,” Brazzell adds. “When you’re looking at types of lifts, there’s a scissor lift, a cascade lift, a four-bar lift – there are so many options to choose from and it’s hard to tell which one’s better. A lot of it was trial and error. You build it, it doesn’t work, so you take it apart and build it again.”

There were challenges on the programming side, too. “Not everything runs ideally,” says Guidry. “You can have two motors and they look the exact same on paper, but in reality one spins a hair faster than the other. When you’re talking about 45 seconds, even a little bit of extra spin makes everything go off. So it’s a matter of trying to get these inputs to work in the real world.”

While the team members had plenty of time to plan and design for the competition in Houston, they found they had to develop and deploy quick-thinking skills when “The Mystery Machine” would pick up, but sometimes drop, goals during their matches. They worked together to add a simple bar across the robot’s top to better hold the goals in place. Quick fixes like this were complicated by one of the competition’s rules – no duct tape.

During the competition, the team had the chance to meet teams from universities in Texas, Florida and Mexico, both to trade tips and share observations on different teams’ failures and successes.

“It was really a great learning experience because there’s so many people out there that have so much more experience than we do. Getting to hear their opinions on how different teams were performing was really helpful,” says Slater.

These observations also helped when it was time for the team to compete. “I was one of the drivers and it was nerve wracking heading in,” says Brazzell. “It was like going into an ambush. But since we’d seen most of the other teams, I knew what they wanted to do so I could adjust our game plan for that.”

With the competition a blur, the team didn’t realize it had qualified for the world championship until the three-hour drive back to Lake Charles. Now, it’s preparing to face 80 teams from universities across the United States, Australia, Canada, Columbia, Mexico, New Zealand, Puerto Rico, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Spain for a chance at the world champion title.

From its observations and performance, the team has made some improvements and now, “We’re ready to go,” says Guidry.

Beyond the competition, the team says that, based on experiences and what’s been learned, it’s ready to apply the knowledge gained to build an even better robot for next year. The team hopes, too, that it can expand to include more non-engineering majors in their weekly meetings in Drew Hall as well as future competitions.

“A lot of what we do, like time management and project management, is a skill developed in any major. All you need to join is an idea or an interest,” says Guidry.

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