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The Rise of the "Net Bot"

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  • The Rise of the "Net Bot"

    Disclaimer: I know and strongly agree that this has nothing to do with the Head Referee job. So it is misplaced here, but I also know this group contains a lot of people for whom this is a relevant topic.

    This is my 20th year as head ref. This year, I have noticed a big jump in a certain robot design, far too similar and common (though not identical) for it to be by chance. It is also extremely sophisticated and to me, clearly not the work of even our best 14-year-old designers. Using terminology from the Magic card game, it is a "Net Bot". Something someone has pulled off the internet as a starting point. It is characterized by twin drive motors mounting vertically at the rear, with power connections up (+z), the EV3 mounted parallel to them, face up, left-right on the EV3 aligned with fore-aft on the bot, and a pair of motors on the "front" side with open drive connections, also +z. The robot is a "cube" of LEGO. Attachments are dropped onto it vertically, and can be removed quickly. Although this design is a little larger than optimal, for an open field like this year with no real obstacles, it can get around. For an example of it in action, see this YouTube: Teams using this design usually have the robot and 4 or 5 very large attachments.

    Although the video claims the poster made it over Thanksgiving, I don't think they designed it. The same design is seen in 2017 and earlier youtubes. But that is not my point.

    We have always had baseline robots that new teams create, and sometimes compete with. The basic one in the LEGO instructions is the starting point for most rookie teams. There are also books and online help. Enough research, and you can have this robot running in a day. We aren't going to ever get away from that, and I am not saying we should; research is part of the game. But at the same time, I feel like we are losing something. In my state championship event 9 days ago, teams running this design seemed like they were in a different contest. For the first time since I have been doing this, it feels like the earth has moved. Even changes in controllers didn't have this impact. The team has essentially skipped a big chunk of the work usually required for FLL, and can focus on attachments, all with the same mechanical connection. The attachments I have seen in my tournaments continue to show "student design" levels of construction (unlike the the video), showing a clear split between borrowed and original content.

    My reasons for posting:
    1. Am I alone in seeing this change? I want to hear what others think.
    2. Does anyone know the actual origin of this design? I have done some looking, but haven't found anything solid.
    3. Is an FLL group of teams (like the one I run in Massachusetts with 9 teams this year) remiss if it does not advise teams about this? Our main purpose is to help new teams and provide weekly competition in advance of qualifying tournaments.

    The robot scoring aspect of FLL competition has been greatly diluted over the years, to the point where it is now almost ignorable. The emphasis has moved to "judged" scoring, and part of that is robot design judging, where it seems one of the jobs is to determine "whether the kids did it". If net bots are "wrong", they should be caught there. I am disappointed with the dilution of the robot game in FLL, but at the same time, there is no dilution in the kids enthusiasm for it (until the end) and it is the greatest motivator. Nobody is signing up for this to do a project presentation. I guess one of the questions I have is: how important is robot design to what kids get out of the program?

    Have a good holiday and thanks for reading.
    MA Head Referee since 1999
    Sharon Youth Robotics Association