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Homesingapore'Like seeing something come to life': Students on representing Singapore at international...

'Like seeing something come to life': Students on representing Singapore at international robotics competition

SINGAPORE: Favian Loh’s interest in robots started with the Transformers movies, where he recalled them being portrayed as “cool-looking”. 

For Elliot Yap and Ng Cher Ron, it was Formula 1 and planes that respectively sparked their interest in robotics. Zachary Ng, on the other hand, did not have a particular interest in robotics but gravitated towards it because of his older brother.

But things changed after his first competition. “I realised that it wasn’t as easy as people thought, but there was also the sort of gratification that came with looking at your first robot move,” said Zachary. 

“It was almost like seeing something come to life.”

The four 17-year-old students are part of Anglo-Chinese School (Independent)’s robotics club, and are also representing Singapore at an upcoming international robotics competition. 

The annual event organised by US-based non-profit group FIRST Global will take place in Singapore from Oct 7 to 10. This is the first time the contest will be held in Southeast Asia. 

Participants will have to build a robot through a simulated environment to produce hydrogen and store, transport and convert energy. 

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PREPARATIONS, EARLY DISAGREEMENTS

Preparations for the competition started around late July for the ACS (I) students, when two boxes of materials were delivered to them. The boxes contain parts that all participating teams will need to use to build their robots. 

But the team had already started planning what they would build even before the parts came in. 

“Our approach for the preparation of this competition is pretty similar to any other competition that we take (part in),” said Elliot. 

The team will first analyse the rules of the game. “Then we decide how we want to play the game and we design the robot around that,” he said.

For the upcoming competition, participants would have to deposit balls into a 2m-tall tower. This can be done using a human player – like playing basketball – or a device built on the robot to automatically throw the balls.

“The reason that we decided to shoot the balls using our robot was because it was faster. And because there are certain human limitations, so we wanted to eliminate that as much as possible,” Zachary said. 

But not everyone in the team was on the same page with the design at first.

“We actually had disagreements during the designing process,” said Zachary, who initially wanted to build a dumper that would extend out of the robot and drop all the balls in the 2m-tall structure.

When disagreements arise, the team solves them by either building the design to test it out or evaluating the pros and cons among themselves. From there, they decide which design to move forward with. If it does not work, they simply change it. 

“Even though we might have different ideas, the principles are still the same. We all want a working robot, we all want to win,” said Zachary.

“Even if (we had) differences, these are really minor as compared to being able to work together.”

ONE STEP FORWARD, TWO STEPS BACK

But it was not just the initial disagreements that weighed down on the students during their preparations. 

The team went through their fair share of trial and error, trying out different mechanisms, said Cher Ron.

“Because of the complexities of the game, we never really know which method is more efficient until we build it in practice.”

At times, the team felt like giving up, said Zachary. “There were times, especially when you work on it for so long, and you think that it will work. But something goes wrong in the process and doesn’t work.

“So, there have been times where we’ve had to undo progress so it feels like taking one step forward and two steps backwards because you realise some things just don’t add up … That’s definitely a bit discouraging.” 

The mental toll of robotics can be “quite crushing”, he added. For the most part, robotics can be repetitive and brain-draining as it involves doing the same thing every day while also trying to think of new ways of doing it, he said. 

Working in a room can also get “gloomy” at times, Zachary said. “(You’re) just sitting here, you’re building. It doesn’t work, try again.

“That process just keeps on going and that can take quite a toll.”

He added that the building of a robot is the hardest part as it requires the most trial and error. 

“But beyond that, when you’re actually on the field competing, that’s when it’s the most fun … because everything works,” said Zachary.

For fellow teammate Elliot, it is this competition aspect that keeps him going as every contest is a “chance to put your work out for everyone else to see and a chance to impress”.

Likewise, the chance to create new mechanisms that were previously just ideas in his head pushes Cher Ron on.

“The ability to change something from imagination to real life is really very valuable. It is really exciting to see our mechanisms work after multiple iterations (and) hours working on it.”

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“MORE MEANINGFUL” TO WIN GOLD ON HOME SOIL

With the competition just around the corner, Favian told CNA that it is a “mix of multiple feelings” for him – from excitement to nervousness. 

“You’re nervous because you sort of hold expectations for yourself after all the work you’ve put in, and then you also have hopes and then that puts pressure on our backs,” he said.

“I guess after enough competitions, the nerves get less,” said teammate Elliot. “You start to feel less pressure and you’re going to enjoy it a bit more.”

Zachary added that their competitors “aren’t really that different”. “It might seem daunting, because you’re always worried like: ‘Oh, what if someone else comes up with an even more efficient solution’. But the reality is that everyone is trying to figure it out too.”

Asked what the team hopes to achieve at the competition, Zachary said it would be nice to win a gold medal. “Especially because it’s on home soil, so it’s a bit more meaningful to us.”

But the team is also setting realistic expectations for themselves, he added, as only about a handful of teams out of more than 190 groups can win a gold medal. 

The students are also hoping for an engineering award which is given based on how innovative an idea is. 

“REFINING NEVER STOPS”

When asked how confident they were, the team gave their design a score between seven and eight on a scale of 10.

Zachary said that the team still has some aspects of their design to figure out even in the last few days of the competition. “The refining process doesn’t ever really stop even on the day of the competition,” he said.

He added that the team also has not had a chance to test the robot in a competition setting yet as participants do not have the full field to do so until the day itself. 

The extra days of preparation at the venue – the Singapore Expo – will come in helpful when the team can test out the robot’s capabilities and make changes on the spot, he said. 

He also noted that other teams have gone the extra mile to get specifications to build a field to test out their robots. 

But the team is not too worried that these teams may have an advantage over them. 

“You have to believe that your system can work right? Or else, the competition is quite doomed from the start, which is not a very good mindset to have,” said Zachary.

He added that the team has learned to value what he calls “no-frills efficiency”. Coming back from their examinations, which ended just a week before, the students had little time left to work on the design, he said. 

This meant that they had to cut out any “glamorous design”, Zachary added. “That’s where the rigour kicks in and you go, ‘This is what I need to do’. Does it look nice? Maybe not. But will it work? Yes. That’s all that matters,” he said.

“Even if it’s not fully tested, even though it may not be fully working, on the day itself, if you have to get it done, you will have to get it done.”

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