Last year our team competed at 3 qualifiers before advancing on to the state championships. Despite the fact that it was our first year, we quickly understood that competing at any event means moving and carrying a lot of stuff. Boxes filled with extra parts; tools; booth items; cords; screws; table cloths; and of course, the robot itself. It adds up to say the least. For one to carry all of the boxes and accoutrements needed, it is best to have some kind of roller cart on which to carry the largest boxes. Although not every team had a cart, some, noticeably, decided to spare no expense for theirs. Many teams had modified a Craftsmen tool chest so than they could rest their robots on top and have the larger drawers in the bottom for storage. Smart idea certainly, but we didn’t have the extra money lying around to buy one. Instead, we used an old roller book cart that was about 3 inches too short in width for our robot. Our mentor came up with a temporary solution to the problem a few days before our first competition, by attaching two rectangular pieces of pegboard to the top with zip ties. This solution proved more than temporary, as we used it through all four of our competitions. Looking back on it, it is surprising to me that we didn’t attempt to come up with a more functional way of transporting everything; but it had not yet come to mind. It was at the state tournament that I really started to see the issues our cart, as well as the craftsmen carts, had.
The morning of competition, we were geared up and ready to go, but the other teams got the better of us and we lost our first three matches. As disappointing as this was, I still had fun. Our primary driver and programmer was less enthused and had a bit of a mental break down. To curb this, I redirected the team, and passed my position of arm driver to a teammate of mine. He had less experience as a driver, but took orders better than I did, which is what our driver really needed. With my position filled, I began walking surround the pits, taking scores of pictures. Whether it was the booths, the robots, the people or carts, it was documented on my iPod. In fact, one of the carts caught my eye during this process. It was a Craftsmen cart that had been modified with cup-holders on the side to hold pens and nut-wrenches. The top was flat and although was covered in pieces, would presumably be the rest area for the robot. It was nice but it didn’t give me that light bulb idea until later.
By the end of our 5th match we had lost 3, won two; my teammate was proving a better arm driver than myself. However, the right back wheel was loose and needed to be tightened. So, I squatted down to get the green box from the bottom rack of the cart, as that’s where the axel wrenches were. When I pulled it out, the bottom of the box caught on the lip of the rack and the lid of the box popped off in my hand. Leaving the lid, I yanked the box out of the cart and the lid fell back on the other side. It took me at least a minute to find the wrench at the bottom of the box, under every other tool, cord and crap. And yet, it did not come to me that our cart was, for lack of a better term, a piece of shit.
Rather it was at the end of the day that it all came together. The team, all of the moms and I were sitting in the lounge area of the Iowa Memorial Union building. As we were sitting there, I noticed that the chairs we were sitting in were truly awesome. Although I don’t remember exactly, I believe the model of chair was “Humanscale Cinto”. I loved it so much because it floated around on carpet so much more easily than my desk chair at home, and yet when I felt like keeping still, it did not swivel because it was four-legged. But even this awesome chair could not easily jump the rubber lip from carpet to tile. One of the moms was having a conversation with me when I noticed this, wherein I had been listing some of the things we might try to do before competition next year. And that’s when the it all came together. Thinking out loud, I began describing my ideas, and my teammates threw in some of their own. Between the 11 team members and 3 moms, we dreamed out our ideal cart.
The cart would not be a craftsman, new or old. It would have drawers that would be custom made for all the tool, parts, and pieces we need so that there was no more sifting for pieces or pulling out boxes. It would have a built in crate for the robot so that it could not possibly fall off and padding on the inside to keep everything safe. It would not have roller wheels, which tripped up on rubber lips, extension cords, and even small rocks. Instead, we would use tank treads that would be powered by a small motor platform. The motor platform could then be set up with an IR sensor that would follow an IR beacon or remote; no more pushing. And instead of loading this large cart into a van on game day, the cart could be sectioned off into four pieces that would stack on top of one another. The sections would include the robot and small parts; medium tools; large tools; and the treads. On the side we could have a fold down desktop that could be a place for setting the laptop when practicing. And lastly, it would have cup holders on the opposing side that would serve a more conventional purpose.
Amazingly, all of these concepts are currently falling into the design and build of our cart with the exception of the cup holders and motors. However, our plan is to tackle the motors next summer when we have more time. Our cart, which we’ve given the technical name of RTV, is quite simply a product of imagination. I think this is the point of FTC; make what you dream.