My experience in the Phoenix Robotics Team

As a STEM student in Unicamp, I had the (lucky) opportunity to experiment a lot. Unicamp students have through the years created a multitude of extra-class activities such as sports leagues, junior companies and engineering activities. I was never good at sports. I tried my luck getting into Mecatron (PT-BR) junior company for a semester, but I was never amused. Then I entered Phoenix Robotics Team (PT-BR). The team is composed of undergraduate students mostly from Electrical/Mechanical Engineering and Computer Science. Phoenix builds a variety of projects, ranging from autonomous cute robots to heavy violent battlebots. The main team's goal is to take part in Robocore competitions as they're one of the biggest robotics challenges in Brazil, gathering every year hundreds of college students from all over the country (including some people from latin-american countries like Mexico). Getting in Phoenix wasn't an instant click. I felt -- and was, indeed -- useless for a lot of time, but I always knew something was there. Things kept getting better and better, I kept getting better and better, and in the end I knew I had an incredible experience on teamwork, engineering and leadership.

My clumsy start

The year was 2012 (time goes incredibly fast my friends) and Phoenix was waaaaay different than it is today (2017). Our garage was less than half the size it is today and our organization was close to non-existent. Don't get me wrong, it was simply a matter of lack of experience/money (we still don't have money though). In short, we definitely evolved since then, in all aspects.


Phoenix from the old days with a typically strange robot. (2010)

As a consequence of poor organization, pretty much every new member was not properly introduced to the team so as to become a productive and valuable addition. I did nothing but simply wander around all day in our first competition, Winter Challenge 2012. I felt less than useless. Even though I thought all that stuff was amazing, I had nothing to contribute to the team. Building a robot requires knowledge on electronics, mechanics, programming and so on. By that time, all I knew was that I liked "robot stuff" and something about Lego Mindstorms. Speaking of which...

Maybe I'm not THAT useless

Things started to get better in late 2012. By that time, I already had some programming skills. We had a LEGO robot for LEGO Sumo, a robotics competition category that is exactly what you think it is. I learned how to program our little buddy and man, was I in love. It was so cool! I mean, I could say (program) "Hey, motherfucker, do that" -- and the motherfucker just complied! (sometimes it just wouldn't compile, hehe... Sorry.)


Zeferino in all of its glory.

I was really into Zeferino, our first LEGO robot. The project manager (known as Moeda) had a background in Mechanical Engineering. I had a background in nothing but I was pretty good at transforming ideas into code, so we were a decent match. We didn't achieve good results the first time our robot competed, but it didn't matter to me: for the first time, I was part of the team. I did a somewhat valuable work which added something to Phoenix. It was very, very fun. After the competition, we built a new version of Zeferino from scratch (cool video presenting the work). I was even more fascinated this time. I made pretty much everything, from mechanical assembly to programming logic. We didn't win anything again, although we got a significantly better result. Again, I didn't care. I learned a lot. I had fun. I was useful. After some time I left LEGO and the new people in the project did a way better job than I did. We are currently one of the biggest names in the brazilian LEGO Sumo scene. Keep in mind that I have nothing to do with this, it is due to names like Cadu, Letícia and Laís.


After I left LEGO, I joined a really, really cool project that was about to get started in Phoenix: Trekking. Category Trekking takes place on a big soccer field where robots must autonomously go through a path composed of landmarks in a predefined order. The landmarks are white bases which the robot must go over while signalizing so. Also, it must be done as fast as possible. I don't know whether you found it difficult or not, but it is crazy difficult. It took two years since the beginning of the category for some team to build a robot that could go through the whole trajectory! It's still one of the most challenging categories to this day. At this time I had some expertise on Computer Vision, so I could add a valuable contribution to the project giving "eyes" to the robot. Due to (mainly) monetary issues, we barely got any progress in one semester. After this period, the then project manager had to leave. Guess who got the position? Not me. Just kidding, it was me. But it wasn't a smart move at all.

The 'stupid boss' era

So... It was 2014, I had never been leader of anything, and there I was in charge of a very complicated project with a team of around 7 people. What could possibly go wrong? It is normal to be a bad leader in your first time, but I was a spetacularly bad leader. Our meetings were always late night and they were basically us doing nothing but talk about things mostly not Trekking-related. When it was Trekking-related, it was only just talk: we never really did anything. The worst part is: I did it for almost a year without even noticing. I can assure you I was one of the worst leaders in history of Phoenix. Why wasn't I removed from the position? Well, our team was still pretty bad with things related to organization and management. This was a really dark era for me in Phoenix.

"What the hell am I doing with my life?" -- This is one of the best phrases in the world. This is what led me to realizing what I was doing in Trekking: nothing. First came despair, then came focus: "That's it. No more wasting of life. I will plan. I will lead. I will do." -- and I stuck with this. It was 2015 when I began defining goals for our project. I began giving meaning to our meetings, with clear topics to be discussed. I began assigning people to tasks, and demanding them to do the tasks. I simply started doing what a manager should do. This was one of the biggest "clicks" I had while in Phoenix. Shortly after I started to act like a real leader, we got two valuable additions to the team: Frei and Seidy. They came back from Interchange. Both had already been my partners in other nerd activities and they're very creative, so we had all we needed to build a kickass robot. And then project 'Baleia' started.


I should've had "the click" earlier. We had a good plan and progress was being made, but we were close to Summer Challenge 2015. It didn't take us down. Actually, it only made us work harder. We had a very good and dedicated team, but I have to be fair and highlight Frei, Seidy, Fernando and Leandro. Without them, Baleia would not exist. Seidy and Frei were my partners all the time. The final days weren't easy. There were constant tests and things that just didn't work as expected and had to be quickly replaced by another solution. We worked insanely hard all day and night the week before the competition, sacrificing classes and healthy hours of sleep. But we did it. It (sort of) worked. Was Baleia ready for Summer Challenge 2015? Yes (not quite).


Leandro, Erik, Frei and Seidy, Baleia's parents.

Summer Challenge 2015 was thrilling, to say the least. Our robot wasn't quite working correctly. The terrain was way worse than expected, so our robot was very unstable. The onboard computer was also having some problems processing webcam's images in a reasonable time window. On the first day, we got as far as the first base. Things were not going well. It was also hot. Very hot. The competition took place in Lavras-MG. I don't know if you have any idea of how hot Brazil is, specially during Summers, but it is crazy hot. Add this to the fact that Trekking takes place in an environment directly under the sun and you have the perfect formula for an insolation. In fact, I had an insolation during the second day. It was the icing on the cake for us to achieve nothing again. Our hopes were lost. Could we overcome everything on the last day? Even though we were tired, we worked very hard that night. Sleep? Haha. Our night of hard work was productive. We had something that could maybe work. Each robot had three attempts per day, so we also would need some luck.

The next day started rainy. Not good -- Baleia could not run in the rain. But the weather got a little nicer after some time. We tested non-stop until... Baleia went through all the three bases! Time to call the judges for an official run. First try: nothing. Why, god?! By this time I had honestly given up. I mean, everything was against us. But then we started the second try and... Yes, it did it! I always get emotional remembering this. Almost everyone from the team was there. We celebrated so hard, we didn't even bother trying a better time with our third try. Of course everything was recorded, do yourself a favor and check it out. Baleia was the third fastest robot to complete the track and we got a bronze that really felt like gold. Baleia was an amazing experience for me. It provided me huge technical and personal self-improvement. I will always remember Baleia and the Baleia team.


Very happy and proud Baleia's parents.

Baleia's bronze tasted like gold, but it wasn't gold. We left Summer Challenge 2015 very happy, but also excited and focused. We knew all the flaws Baleia had and that these flaws would never make it possible to get Baleia to a better place than third. Our robot finished in around two minutes, the two best times were some seconds longer than one minute. So this was it: a new robot should be made. We listed the main challenges and attacked them as soon as we could. It didn't take long until we had a masterplan for a robot that would be everything Baleia wasn't: Fast. Powerful. Agressive. What's a good name for a water animal that has all these qualities? We went with Piranha.

Piranha: the redemption

It is late 2015 and we have a plan. I was very lucky to remain the project manager for this new project. We present all of our ideas to one of our sponsors, Eldorado, and they love it. Mauro and Edgar are the names to remember from Eldorado. They really believed in us and gave us everything we needed. So what did we need? Remember the three words: Fast, Powerful, Agressive. For powerful, we meant computationally powerful. Our new robot got a Jetson TX1 GPU, a real monster of computing. Time windows would never again be a problem. We also got a wide variety of sensors (such as accelerometer, gyro, magnetometer) from NXP, which was presented to us by Mauro from Eldorado. We could get both the "Fast" and "Agressive" parts covered with the aquisition of an insanely fast electric RC car designed for wild terrains. By early 2016 we had almost everything we needed, but we still didn't know whether or plan would work or be a complete fiasco. So we did the only thing we could to find it out: we worked extremely hard.

Besides Baleia's main contributors, we had another very valuable and dedicated addition to our team: Luisa. Luisa became the fourth partner and she was always with us during our weeekends working sprees. I will always remember very fondly of this time. We did a very beautiful team work non-stop for one whole semester. Besides, I kept improving my management and engineering skills. I'm also very happy for the harmony we (Me, Seidy, Frei, Luisa) had. We worked hard and we had some serious challenges along the development process, but due to our dedication (and the engineering monsters we had in the team) everything went reasonably well and by the time we were close to Winter Challenge 2016 we had a kick-ass robot. Dude, Piranha was beautiful.


Our cute baby Piranha.

Winter Challenge 2016 came and dude, we kicked ass. Don't get me wrong, all three days were pretty challenging (especially the first when we had to adapt to the bad terrain), but we overcame all challenges. While almost no one could make their robots go through the whole circuit (which had been further complicated by the addition of obstacles), we broke the competition's time record day after day. Everyone's eyes were over our little baby Piranha. At the end of the third day, we held the record of 41 seconds and we got our well-deserved gold trophy. Check out our little bad motherfucker getting the 41 seconds mark.


The fantastic four.

Even though we got first place, the competitions results wouldn't really matter. To me, the best part in my experience with Piranha was the process. Developing it was really magical. The crazy ideas. The coding. The nightly tests. The coffee. The careful planning going (somewhat) as expected. No matter what the competition results were, I had already gained a lot with this experience I had the luck to have. I'm very thankful to Seidy, Frei and Luisa for that. And this was, for me, my redemption in Phoenix: after all the years of being either completely useless or the worst project manager ever, I got better. I, together with some brilliant people, built something for Phoenix to be very proud of.

So, what's my experience with the Phoenix Robotics Team?

I've been there for a long time. 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016. When I got in, I was still in Control Engineering. Now I'm (hopefully) graduating soon in Computer Engineering/Science (you can be sure the experiences I had in Phoenix were decisive for that). I got in clueless. I fucked up bad for a variety of occasions. But I learned with my errors. And I got out way better. Better at pretty much everything someone with a passion for science and engineering like me may want: I learned how to work better with people. I learned an awful lot of technical stuff. I learned how to plan, how to design. I learned how to be a leader. I also learned that I must always ask myself "What the fuck I am doing with my life", definitely one of the most valuable lessons. I'm very aware I still have a lot to learn about all this stuff (protip: we'll always have), but Phoenix gave me a tremendous level-up so that now I feel more ready to the world. And if I could go from a extremely shitty member to a somewhat useful part of the team, I'm pretty sure everyone else can. I have no doubt this was for me the most important experience I had in college life.

Thanks, Phoenix.

Author: erik | Created on: Feb. 16, 2017 | Category: Random