One of the great benefits of working at Adobe is that Adobe believes strongly in community involvement and volunteering. Every Adobe employee is encouraged to use their skills and passions outside of their jobs as volunteers and board members for nonprofits and other community organizations. I take this to heart as a volunteer with FIRST Robotics.
FIRST Robotics offers programs for elementary, middle school and high school students around the world. These programs expose students to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) through sport-like competition. Students receive a challenge at the beginning of each competition season and then build robots to address the challenge. Depending on the age of the participants, the challenge may be to solve an important problem such as water quality or delivery of affordable health care, or it might be to play a game that requires careful planning of both robot design and gamely strategy.
The elementary school program is called Junior FIRST Lego League (Jr.FLL). In Jr.FLL, students prepare a presentation to address the challenge. As the students get older, the programs become competitive and the teams must design, build and program a robot to address the challenge.
The middle school program is called FIRST Lego League (FLL). In FLL, the robots are made of Legos and use Lego NXT or EV3 controllers. The robots always operate autonomously, and there is only one robot on each side of the playing field at a time. The robots perform tasks related to the challenge, but do not generally compete directly with another robot.
In high school, teams compete alongside other teams called Alliances to try and outscore other alliances. There are two high school programs: FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) and FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC). In FTC and FRC, the robots operate autonomously for the first few seconds of the match, and then the students drive the robots for the remainder. There is usually a period at the end of the match, known as the “endgame,” where the rules change or an additional challenge becomes available. There is not always an endgame.
FTC uses Lego NXT robot controllers on larger robot frames, but they are transitioning to Android controllers for the next season. FTC matches consist of two robots per alliance and two alliances on the field at a time. FRC uses a National Instruments roboRIO controller and frames up to 120 lbs. FRC matches consist of three robots per alliance and two alliances on the field at a time. There is a ton of YouTube video out there; just search for FLL, FTC or FRC. I volunteer with FRC as a play-by-play announcer at competitions and occasionally as an event judge.
Common to all FIRST programs is documentation. Each program has a range of program-specific documentation, including but not limited to:
- Rules for each competitive season
- Coach and mentor guidelines
- Team notifications
- Curriculum help
- Change logs for all of the aforementioned documentation
Managing all of this documentation is a challenge, as the documentation changes regularly with real consequences for teams. For instance, it is common early in the competition season for game rules to change that might impact robot design. Also, teams are encouraged to ask questions about the rules, and those questions and answers are often summarized in the game documentation. Teams need to be informed in a timely manner so that they don’t proceed with designs that might not align with the game rules.
Another challenge is timing. Game rules are announced to the world at specific times on specific days. This is done through global simulcast so that no team has an advantage over another team when it comes to the game rules. Traditionally, documentation has been provided via password-protected PDFs on the FIRST web site. At the end of the simulcast, the password would be revealed and the teams could begin to read.
When we started talking about DPS with FIRST, these two challenges were topmost in our minds, and when I say “our,” I mean the Adobe team. I can’t speak for what was topmost in FIRST’s collective mind. We all believed that DPS could solve the update problem as well as the timed release of content problem very well, so we put it to the test in January of 2015 with the reveal of the 2015 FRC Game, Recycle Rush.
For FRC Kickoff, I went to a local college with most of the teams from Maine to watch the simulcast together. Many of the mentors and students had their mobile devices, and many had the FIRST app on their device ahead of time. As the game was revealed and as the password for the PDF was shown, the game manual for Recycle Rush appeared in the FIRST Game Manual app right on schedule. One of the mentors sitting next to me watched this happen. He looked at me and asked if he needed a password. I smiled and asked him to open the manual and find out. He tapped on the manual and began to read. Smiling, he looked up and said, “Wow. That was cool!”
The next test came a week later when the first updates were to be published. The manuals are made in InDesign, so the team at FIRST was able to make the adjustments and publish those changes from InDesign. Once published, teams needed to know that the changes were available, so FIRST used the built-in DPS push notification service. I and my team all received the notices on our iPads and our iPhones, and swiping or tapping the notice took us right to the updated content.
As we moved through the competition season, I watched how teams used the manuals. Many teams had it on their phones as well as their tablets, as they frequently returned to the manual to confirm design choices. Later, as the season progressed, they were looking carefully at the conditions which might lead to penalties. Even through the District Championship event, with teams having competed in two or more precursor events, teams still made frequent use of the manuals.
The design of the manual is as important as the content, and FIRST produced a clean, readable, and highly functional tool to help teams play the game and ultimately to be better competitors. Kudos to the FIRST documentation team, who produce manuals for all of the FIRST games.
I’m headed to the FIRST Championships in St. Louis, Missouri this week to volunteer some more and to see all of the FIRST programs draw to a close for the 2014-2015 season. It has been a pleasure and a delight to help bring the manuals on DPS to fruition and then to see the positive reaction and real world usage of the tool. I’m looking forward to helping the manuals evolve as the 2015-2016 season gets underway.