I have blogged several times before about my involvement in building the Field Management System that runs the FIRST FRC events.  Each year I have worked very hard with 2 other engineers on trying to build the best possible experience for the volunteers that run the event, teams that participate in the event, and the audience that attends the event.  This year we wanted to extend the experience to beyond those that actually attend the event.  We wanted to have a way to announce the results of the matches as they are happening on the field.  This has been done in the past by updating an HTML web page that gets posted on the FIRST web site.  But we wanted something more that could be used by the teams in their quest for knowledge on what is happening during each event on their device of choice.

So I am very pleased to say that this years event will have twitter updates for each match as they are completed on the field.  All you have to do is follow the FRCFMS twitter account in order to get match updates from all events.  The tweets that are posted follow a specific format that should allow the teams to build really cool applications on top of the twitter data.  Here is an example tweet of our test event:


As you can see in the tweet it is a little hard to read as we are jamming a bunch of information into the 140 character limitation but this should be vary easy to parse the information with a bot of some sort.

The format is defined as follows:

#FRCABC - where ABC is the Event Code.  Each event has a unique code.

TYP X - where x is P for Practice Q for qualification E for Elimination

MCH X - where X is the match number

ST X - where X is A for Autonomous T for Teloperated C for complete

TIM XXX - where XXX is the time left

RFIN XXX - where XXX is the Red Final Score

BFIN XXX - where XXX is the Blue Final Score

RED XXX YYY ZZZ - where XXX is red team 1 number, YYY is red team 2 number, ZZZ is red team 3 number

BLUE XXX YYY ZZZ - where XXX is blue team 1 number, YYY is blue team 2 number, ZZZ is blue team 3 number

RCEL X - where X is the red Super cell count

BCEL X - where X is the blue Super cell count

RROC X - where X is the red rock and red Empty Cell count

BROC X - where X is the blue rock and blue Empty Cell count

There are some cool ways you can use twitter to get the information you want for a specific event.  Hop on over to search.twitter.com and enter in the following #FRCTEST TYP Q and you will get a list of all qualifying matches for the TEST event.  When the events start this weekend you can substitute the TEST code with the event code of your choice.  The FIRST FRC Team update has a list of all the valid event codes.

You can also use the search.twitter.com with your favorite RSS reader to get updates in RSS format.

If other tweeple are tweeting about the event and using the same hashcode that the Field Management System uses then you can hop on over to #hashtags and enter in the hash code for the event and see all tweets for that event.  For example try navigating to http://www.hashtags.org/tag/frctest and you will see all the tweets for the #frctest event that we have been running to test the Field Management System.

Although for week one the match tweets will only be at the end of each match, week 2 we are thinking about upping the frequency of these tweets so that you get more of them while the match is in play.  This will make it very difficult for a human to read the tweets on a small device because they will be too many of them coming.  I would like to hear any ones thought on what the frequency of tweets should be and if they expect to be reading the tweets rather than parsing them with another tool.  Of course if you intend to read the tweets and you are only interested in the final match result you could use the search.twitter.com advanced search capabilities to only view tweets that have the status of complete.  That search would look something like this:


It will be really cool to see how the information we are posting is going to be used!

I have been meaning to blog about one of the coolest projects I have been involved with for a while now but I have been too busy to do so.  Back in June of 2006 I got involved with Bob Pitzer (Botbash), Chris Harriman and Joel Meine, in providing a software/hardware solution for the FIRST Robotics Competition for their upcoming 2007 season.  FIRST is a non profit organization that is dedicated to teaching young minds about science and technology through several fun filled robotics competitions.  Make sure you check out their web site to see how you might be able to get involved in this great program.  Also check out the 2007 video archive to see how exciting these events can be.  Make sure you pay attention to the computer graphics that are superimposed over the live video because that is what we built! 

The software and hardware we built was used to manage multiple 3 day events over a months time frame.  This ended up being around 40 events across the US in roughly 30 days.  Each event had anywhere from 30 to 70 teams competing.  Each day of the event had to be executed in an efficient manor in order to complete the tournament style competition.  The system was designed at a high level to do the following:

  • Lead an event coordinator through the steps of managing a tournament
  • Maintain a schedule of matches over a 3 day period
  • Inform the audience of match scoring in real time
  • Broadcast live video mixed with real time match score information to the web
  • Inform the other competitors in the Pit area of upcoming matches, match results, and real time team ranking details as each match completes.
  • Control the field of play from a central location
  • Gather scoring details from judges located on the field
  • Provide periodic event reports for online viewing as the tournament progresses

All of this was done using Microsoft .Net along with various open source .Net projects to speed up the development process and provide a robust system that was easy to use by various volunteers. 

I used various pre-built components in order to build this system.  Since this application needed to interface with multiple hardware components and provide a rich user interface a Windows Forms application was going to be required.  I chose the Patterns and Practices Smart Client Software Factory (SCSF) as the basis for the Windows Forms framework.  I had used this Framework in a previous project and I knew it would give me the modular design I needed to accomplish the functional goals of the design.  I wanted a solution that allowed for me to do a lot of Unit Testing as I was going to be the only developer doing the work and the amount of QA testing was going to be very small.  Since the SCSF used a Model View Presenter pattern I knew that testing would not be an issue.  Also SCSF uses a dependency injection pattern that would also lend itself very well for unit testing.  Another benefit of the dependency injection pattern was that I could mock out some of the hardware interfaces so that I did not have to have a fully functional robot arena in my home office!  I actually developed the hardware interface without ever connecting to the hardware on my development machine.  This was done by establishing a good interface and using a mock implementation of this interface to complete all the business logic without having any hardware.  Then at a later date we implemented the real hardware layer and even to this day I use the mock implementation for all development work since I do not have an arena in my office. 

For the data access layer I choose to use SubSonic as it provided a very fast way to generate the data access layer from a database schema.  Using SubSonic gave me the flexibility to grow the data model really fast as the solution emerged over time.  The database back end was SQL Server Express 2005.  Since the solution only required a small set of clients and it had to be disconnected from the Internet  SQL Server Express was right for the job. 

Deployment of the application was done with ClickOnce in a full trust environment.  This enabled me to make changes to the application throughout the tournament and the software on each playing field computer remained at the most recent version.  The click once deployment also managed the upgrade process for any database changes as well. 

The central control of the field of play was handled by a single .Net Win Forms application that interfaced to Programmable Logic Controllers (PLC) via a third party managed library.  This library allowed for me to set PLC memory locations as well as monitor locations without having to worry about the TCP/IP communications protocol.  This was a great time saver as I could concentrate on high level business value rather than low level communications.  Since the low level communications was not required I did not have to spend a lot of time with debugging hardware/software integration problems.

Another key area of integration was providing a Hardware UI that consisted of LCDs and Buttons that enabled a field operator to manage the match process without using the computer keyboard or mouse.  This was done using a serial port communicating to a BX24 from Netmedia.  The user would actuate buttons on the hardware UI in order to start or stop the match as well as many other tournament related functions.  The hardware UI would lead the operator to the next step by flashing the most appropriate button for the current point of the match.  This made the operators job a lot easier. 

The audience needed to be informed about what is going on during the event.  An announcer was always present at these events but the audience also needed visual cues that made it apparent what was going on.  So I created a win forms audience display application that would provide the detail the audience needed.  This detail was not only displayed to the live audience but it was also broadcast over the Internet to individuals that where not able to attend physically.  This audience display showed live video as well as match statistics mixed together on one screen (you can see this in action in the video links I mentioned above).  This screen was projected up onto a huge screen so all audience members could see with great ease.  The live video mixing was done using a green screen technique that is often used with the weatherman on local news stations.  Basically a green color is used in a color keying process to superimpose the live video over the green color.  The screen snapshots below give you an idea of the type of information that was presented to the audience as well as the web broadcast.


2007-02-21_135125      2007-02-21_135226

AlliancePairingSample      2007-02-21_135201

Well I could go on and on about details of the application we wrote to make the 2007 FIRST FRC event a great success but I think I will save it for a set of later posts.  Also I have been working on the software for the 2008 season that uses WPF for an even more richer user experience (can anyone guess I used some animations!).

Heathkit was an awesome company that supplied electronic kits for educational purposes back in the 80's and 90's.  Their products where a bit on the pricey side but where else could you get a TV in kit form that you had to build.  I bought an Oscilloscope from them and put it all together in several weekends.  I also had a single board computer that was sold by Heathkit that I did not actually build but I used it for teaching myself how to program using machine(Assembly) language.

Well Heathkit is back in action and one of the best products they offered is also back.  The Hero Robot of the 80's is now called HE-RObot.  Back in the 80's you could get this robot in kit form or fully assembled.  I was never able to purchase one but I worked for a company repairing electronic equipment and the owner's son ended up getting one.  It was one of the coolest things I saw and it probably was one of the reasons I became so interested in robotics in the first place.  I don't remember all the specifics of the original robot but from what I remember it had sonar ranging, optical wheel encoders, light sensors, current sensors, and sound sensors.

Well the new Hero is a partnership between White Box Robotics and Heathkit.  The new HE-RObot comes with an onboard PC with an XP operating system and Microsoft Robotics Studio as the programming environment.  Finally a product is in the market place that combines both of my passion's: Robotics and Microsoft .Net.  This is a very powerful robot but I do not see too many details on what sensors will be offered.  On the web site it looks like it will include IR, Web Camera, and Audio.  I sure would like to see a few more details on what other capabilities it will have as far as sensors go. 

The web camera is going to be real powerful as a sensor.  I was fortunate enough to evaluate an ER1 robot from Evolution Robotics.  I wrote an article about this experience called 30 Days of ER1 back in 2003.  The live video pattern recognition routines put a whole new meaning to navigating your environment.  I am pretty sure White Box Robotics has licensed the software that handled pattern recognition from Evolution Robotics so the HE-RObot will have the same capabilities.