The journey of Team Sri Lanka to the FIRST Global Challenge 2017

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“There are teams from nearly 160 countries this year. It’s not just about solving global problems. It’s about solving problems together with those from other cultures,” said Samantha Tenduf-La – an overseer of Team Sri Lanka describing the FIRST Global Challenge 2017. In case you’re lost, the FIRST Global Challenge is an annual international robotics challenge that aims to inspire children from all corners of the world to pursue STEM studies. Primarily aimed at high-school students, the goal of the competition is to address the 14 Grand Challenges identified by the United States of America’s National Academy of Engineering. And this year, there’s a team in Sri Lanka that’s building their own robot that will leave its mark on this global stage.

Team Sri Lanka is born

When the FIRST Global Challenge 2017 kicked off, the organizers invited schools from all across the world to apply. While Sri Lanka was a late invitee, various schools in the country were invited to apply. Ultimately, the chance to participate in the competition was given to Elizabeth Moir International School, which was the first to respond to the call for applications. And so the task of forming the team now fell upon Dilum Rathnasinghe– the ICT teacher and Shivashankaran Satchithananthan– Head of the Robotics Club. The duo went through both academic and extracurricular records of all students who were currently pursuing their A/L’s. They were looking for five talented students that were all-rounders and after two days, they had found the team.

Now Dilum had the task of convincing their hopefuls to join the team. He called the five students and told them to meet him at the Computer Lab. They gathered at the computer lab with the main question on their mind being, “Are we in trouble?” Dilum quickly dispelled their worries and then told them about the FIRST Global Challenge 2017 and that the school would like them to participate in it. The students almost immediately agreed the moment Dilum had finished introducing the competition to them. Thus, Team Sri Lanka was officially formed.

Team Sri Lanka FIRST Global Challenge 2017
The students of Team Sri Lanka participating in the FIRST Global Challenge 2017

Leading this team would be Ali Anver who is also captain of the chess team. Alongside him are fellow members of the Coding Club: Akash Gnanam who spends his spare time learning how to build the perfect Role Playing Game, Amjad Hamza who loves to debate and act on the big stage, and Vinidu Jayasinghe who is one of the few girls in the coding club and is looking at building her own AI. The only member of the team who wasn’t in the coding club is Ishini Gammanpilla, who is described as a general all-rounder who took the lead in the Elizabeth Moir school play and was selected for her high grades in physics. What united them was their common interest in robotics. Thus, Team Sri Lanka was born.

The rushed challenging journey begins

Since they were accepted into the FIRST Global Challenge 2017, Team Sri Lanka has a wild journey rushing to meet deadlines. Since they were late to join the program, they only received the starter kit that contained all the parts to build a robot in early May. In contrast, the teams from other countries had received them in March and had a huge head start. If they were to build a robot that would win the competition, they needed to start immediately.

But how does one build a robot that wins at the FIRST Global Challenge 2017? To answer this question, we need to take another look at what the FIRST Global Challenge is. This is an international robotics competition held annually that encourages high-school students to address 14 Grand Challenges. Each year, a different Grand Challenge is chosen as the theme of the competition. This year, the theme of the competition is to provide access to clean water. This is a problem that affects over one billion people with half of them being children.

Team Sri Lanka FIRST Global Challenge 2017
Access to clean water is the theme of the FIRST Global Challenge 2017

As such, this year the competition will reflect how countries should work together to solve the water crisis the world is currently facing. So how does this competition work? The teams, which come from nearly 160 countries will be organized into two competing alliances. Each of these alliances would consist of three national teams and will be shuffled after each match. During a match, the alliances will have to work together to solve the challenge of obtaining and storing fresh water for a village with a river inside an arena.

At the start of the match, the alliances will place their robots in the location that they feel is ideal on the river banks. Once the match starts 40 blue balls and 10 orange balls flow into the river. The blue balls represent clean water while the orange balls represent contaminants. The goal of each alliance is to work together, collect as many blue balls and store them in their designated water reserve located at the front of the arena. At the same time, they also need to put at least 10 orange balls in the laboratory, which is located at the rear of the arena atop a bridge.

The alliances get points for each blue ball that they send into the water reserve and each orange ball that goes into the laboratory. Once two minutes have passed, the match moves into the next phase. In this phase, the arena will be flooded with blue balls. The teams must ensure that they get their robots to safety before they get flooded and there are two ways they can do so. The first is to get the robot to the bridge near the laboratory. The second is to have the robot climb to safety by grabbing one of the hanging bars on the side of the arena, which are made of aluminum pipes and span the width of the arena. The latter is significantly more challenging than the former. However, at the end of the match, the team that achieves the latter would bring more points to their alliance.

Building Don Pablo Tellize

Once Team Sri Lanka was formed received the parts needed to build their robot from the organizers of the FIRST Global Challenge that’s sent to all the teams, they began work almost immediately. The school had taken the decision to give the team the old French room as a workshop space. And so, the old classroom was revamped. The only signs of the old classroom that remained were the locker and the shelf with books. The chairs were thrown out and the majority of the tables combined to form a single massive work-space. Once the parts had arrived, they were unpacked and neatly laid out on the work-space.

Team Sri Lanka FIRST Global Challenge 2017
Team Sri Lanka’s workshop

At the front of the new workshop, on top of what used to be the teacher’s desk stood Don Pablo Tellize. After we were introduced to him by the team, it seemed as if he was the definition of diversity. He is part American as that’s where his components were shipped from, part Chinese because that’s where the components were likely manufactured, part French because he is being built in the French Room of the school, and part Sri Lankan because that’s where he was born. This is Don Pablo Tellize – the robot being built by Team Sri Lanka for the FIRST Global Challenge 2017.

Much of the process of building Don Pablo involved a lot of trial and error. The team began the process of building Don Pablo by first identifying and experimenting to understand what they could do with each component. Meanwhile, on the software side of things, the team had two ways to program the robot. One was to write the code with Java and the second was visually by using the Google Blocky platform. Once they had understood what each component did and how to program the robot using Google Blocky, the team started formulating plans to create the first versions of Don Pablo.

Team Sri Lanka First Global Challenge 2017
Meet Don Pablo Telize

To formulate these plans, they took a look at the competition and decided to divide the development of Don Pablo into four stages. Each of these stages represented a challenge that Don Pablo had to conquer during a match: collect as many balls as possible, sort the balls as quickly as possible, store and transport the balls to the right place, and get to safety once the arena started flooding. Even though the team had formulated a plan, the task of building a robot is easier said than done.

Ali described the process as saying, “It was a LOT of trial and error.” Ishini elaborated on this saying, “Whenever we solved the problems in one stage and moved onto the next stage, we had to go back to the drawing board and restart from scratch. This was because new problems always arose when we moved onto each stage. And when we fixed these new problems, the old problems suddenly returned.” Afterward, Amjad shared that despite all the challenges they faced, they received a lot of support from their school.

Team Sri Lanka FIRST Global Challenge 2017
The team works on the different components of Don Pablo Telize

Dilum – the ICT teacher, was their advisor when it came to programming the robot. Meanwhile, Shivashankaran – the Head of the Robotics Club, assisted the team in creating their designs with the CAD software and assembling the robot. In addition to their teachers, the team also received support from Virtusa, which will be sponsoring the team’s trip to participate in the competition in Washington D.C. Finally, there are the parents who are the silent heroes of this stories. When they that heard the team was selected for the competition, they encouraged them to give it their fullest and allowed the teams to stay at school inside their workshop till the later hours of the evening.

Exactly how well prepared is Team Sri Lanka?

When we threw this question at the team, they responded by saying that Don Pablo is 80% complete. At the moment, the robot can carry out the first two stages required of the competition in an efficient manner. Furthermore, they’re on the road to conquering the challenges of the third stage as well. However, there’s still one more stage remaining. Thus, there’s likely going to be many more experiments until Team Sri Lanka can ensure Don Pablo can survive all the challenges thrown at it by the FIRST Global Challenge 2017.

Team Sri Lanka FIRST Global Challenge 2017
Image credits: Elizabeth Moir International School

The competition will be taking place on the 17th of July 2017. At the time of writing, the team has a month remaining until the competition begins. The clock is ticking and Team Sri Lanka is racing through to complete their robot. Nonetheless, while many other teams had a two-month head start, Team Sri Lanka has made some strong progress. Hopefully, at the end of the FIRST Global Challenge 2017, we’ll see them as winners. Yet, irrespective of the results, Don Pablo built by Akash, Ali, Ishini, Amjad, and Vinidu is the latest example that proves that when we empower passionate students, they will go on to build great things. And this is something we hope that more schools will learn and embrace in the near future.

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