Q&A: Robotics Mentor and Champion

Peter Matteson, a Senior Project Engineer at Pratt & Whitney in East Hartford, CT, has a passion for robotics. We recently discussed how he became involved with mentoring a high school robotics team, the types of robots the team designs, and the team’s success.—Nan Price, Associate Editor

 

NAN: You mentor a FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics team for a local high school. How did you become involved?

Peter Matteson

Peter Matteson

PETER: I became involved in FIRST in late 2002 when one of my fraternity brothers who I worked with at the time mentioned that FIRST was looking for new mentors to help the team the company sponsored. I was working at what was then known as UTC Power (sold off to ClearEdge Power Systems last year) and the company had sponsored Team 177 Bobcat Robotics since 1995.

After my first year mentoring the kids and experiencing the competition, I got hooked. I loved the competition and strategy of solving a new game each year and designing and building a robot. I enjoyed working with the kids, teaching them how to design and build mechanisms and strategize the games.

The FIRST team’s 2010 robot is shown.

The FIRST team’s 2010 robot is shown.

A robot’s articulating drive train is tested  on an obstacle (bump) at the 2010 competition.

A robot’s articulating drive train is tested on an obstacle (bump) at the 2010 competition.

NAN: What types of robots has your team built?

A temporary control board was used to test the drive base at the 2010 competition.

A temporary control board was used to test the drive base at the 2010 competition.

PETER: Every robot we make is purposely built for a specific game the year we build it. The robots have varied from arm robots with a 15’ reach to catapults that launch a 40” diameter ball, to Frisbee throwers, to Nerf ball shooters.

They have varied in drive train from 4 × 4 to 6 × 6 to articulating 8 × 8. Their speeds have varied from 6 to 16 fps.

NAN: What types of products do you use to build the robots? Do you have any favorites?

PETER: We use a variant of the Texas Instruments (TI) cRIO electronics kit for the controller, as is required per the FIRST competition rules. The motors and motor controllers we use are also mandated to a few choices. We prefer VEX Robotics VEXPro Victors, but we also design with the TI Jaguar motor controllers. For the last few years, we used a SparkFun CMUcam webcam for the vision system. We build with Grayhill encoders, various inexpensive limit switches, and gyro chips.

The team designed a prototype minibot.

The team designed a prototype minibot.

For pneumatics we utilize compressors from Thomas and VIAIR. Our cylinders are primarily from Bimba, but we also use Parker and SMC. For valves we use SMC and Festo. We usually design with clipart plastic or stainless accumulator tanks. Our gears and transmissions come from AndyMark, VEX Robotics’s VEXPro, and BaneBots.

The AndyMark shifter transmissions were a mainstay of ours until last year when we tried the VEXPro transmissions for the first time. Over the years, we have utilized many of the planetary transmissions from AndyMark, VEX Robotics, and BaneBots. We have had good experience with all the manufacturers. BaneBots had a shaky start, but it has vastly improved its products.

We have many other odds and ends we’ve discovered over the years for specific needs of the games. Those are a little harder to describe because they tend to be very specific, but urethane belting is useful in many ways.

NAN: Has your team won any competitions?

Peter’s FIRST team is pictured at the 2009 championship at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, GA. (Peter is standing fourth from the right.)

Peter’s FIRST team is pictured at the 2009 championship at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, GA. (Peter is standing fourth from the right.)

PETER: My team is considered one of the most successful in FIRST. We have won four regional-level competitions. We have always shined at the competition’s championship level when the 400 teams from the nine-plus countries that qualify vie for the championship.

In my years on the team, we have won the championship twice (2007 and 2010), been the championship finalist once (2011), won our division, made the final four a total of six times (2006–2011), and were division finalists in 2004.

A FIRST team member works on a robot “in the pits” at the 2011 Hartford, CT, regional competition.

A FIRST team member works on a robot “in the pits” at the 2011 Hartford, CT, regional competition.

Team 177 was the only team to make the final four more than three years in a row, setting the bar at six consecutive trips. It was also the only team to make seven trips to the final four, including in 2001.

NAN: What is your current occupation?

PETER: I am a Senior Project Engineer at Pratt & Whitney. I oversee and direct a team of engineers designing components for commercial aircraft propulsion systems.

NAN: How and when did you become interested in robotics?

PETER: I have been interested in robotics for as long as I can remember. The tipping point was probably when I took an industrial robotics course in college. That was when I really developed a curiosity about what I could do with robots.

The industrial robots course started with basic programming robots for tasks. We had a welding robot we taught the weld path and it determined on its own how to get between points.

We also worked with programming a robot to install light bulbs and then determine if the bulbs were working properly.

In addition to practical labs such as those, we also had to design the optimal robot for painting a car and figure out how to program it. We basically had to come up with a proposal for how to design and build the robot from scratch.

This robot from the 2008 competition holds a 40” diameter ball for size reference.

This robot from the 2008 competition holds a 40” diameter ball for size reference.

NAN: What advice do you have for engineers or students who are designing robots or robotic systems?

PETER: My advice is to clearly set your requirements at the beginning of the project and then do some research into how other people have accomplished them. Use that inspiration as a stepping-off point. From there, you need to build a prototype. I like to use wood, cardboard, and other materials to build prototypes. After this you can iterate to improve your design until it performs exactly as expected.

A Quiet Place for Soldering and Software Design

Senior software engineer Carlo Tauraso, of Trieste, Italy, has designed his home workspace to be “a distraction-free area where tools, manuals, and computer are at your fingertips.”

Tauraso, who wrote his first Assembler code in the 1980s for the Sinclair Research ZX Spectrum PC, now works on developing firmware for network devices and microinterfaces for a variety of European companies. Several of his articles and programming courses have been published in Italy, France, Spain, and the US. Three of his articles have appeared in Circuit Cellar since 2008.

Photo 1: This workstation is neatly divided into a soldering/assembling area on the left and developing/programming area on the right.

Photo 1: This workstation is neatly divided into a soldering/assembling area on the left and a developing/programming area on the right.

Tauraso keeps an orderly and, most importantly, quiet work area that helps him stay focused on his designs.

This is my “magic” designer workspace. It’s not simple to make an environment that’s perfectly suited to you. When I work and study I need silence.

I am a software engineer, so during designing I always divide the work into two main parts: the analysis and the implementation. I decided, therefore, to separate my workspace into two areas: the developing/programming area on the right and the soldering/assembling area on the left (see Photo 1). When I do one or the other activity, I move physically in one of the two areas of the table. Assembling and soldering are manual activities that relax me. On the other hand, programming often is a rather complex activity that requires a lot more concentration.

Photo 2: The marble slab at the right of Tauraso’s assembling/soldering area protects the table surface and the optical inspection camera nearby helps him work with tiny ICs.

Photo 2: The marble slab at the right of Tauraso’s assembling/soldering area protects the table surface. The optical inspection camera nearby helps him work with tiny ICs.

The assembling/soldering area is carefully set up to keep all of Tauraso’s tools within easy reach.

I fixed a marble slab square on the table to solder without fear of ruining the wood surface (see Photo 2). As you can see, I use a hot-air solder station and the usual iron welder. Today’s ICs are very small, so I also installed a camera for optical inspection (the black cylinder with the blue stripe). On the right, there are 12 outlets, each with its own switch. Everything is ready and at your fingertips!

Photo 3: This developing and programming space, with its three small computers, is called “the little Hydra.”

Photo 3: This developing and programming space, with its three small computers, is called “the little Hydra.”

The workspace’s developing and programming area makes it easy to multitask (see Photo 3).

In the foreground you can see a network of three small computers that I call “the little Hydra” in honor of the object-based OS developed at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA, during the ’70s. The HYDRA project sought to demonstrate the cost-performance advantages of multiprocessors based on an inexpensive minicomputer. I used the same philosophy, so I have connected three Mini-ITX motherboards. Here I can test network programming with real hardware—one as a server, one as a client, one as a network sniffer or an attacker—while, on the other hand, I can front-end develop Windows and the [Microchip Technology] PIC firmware while chatting with my girlfriend.

This senior software designer has created a quiet work area with all his tools close at hand.

Senior software engineer Tauraso has created a quiet work area with all his tools close at hand.

Circuit Cellar will be publishing Tauraso’s article about a wireless thermal monitoring system based on the ANT+ protocol in an upcoming issue. In the meantime, you can follow Tauraso on Twitter @CarloTauraso.

System Safety Assessment

System safety assessment provides a standard, generic method to identify, classify, and mitigate hazards. It is an extension of failure mode effects and criticality analysis and fault-tree analysis that is necessary for embedded controller specification.

System safety assessment was originally called ”system hazard analysis.” The name change was probably due to the system safety assessment’s positive-sounding connotation.

George Novacek (gnovacek@nexicom.net) is a professional engineer with a degree in Cybernetics and Closed-Loop Control. Now retired, he was most recently president of a multinational manufacturer of embedded control systems for aerospace applications. George wrote 26 feature articles for Circuit Cellar between 1999 and 2004.

Columnist George Novacek (gnovacek@nexicom.net), who wrote this article published in Circuit Cellar’s January 2014 issue, is a professional engineer with a degree in Cybernetics and Closed-Loop Control. Now retired, he was most recently president of a multinational manufacturer of embedded control systems for aerospace applications. George wrote 26 feature articles for Circuit Cellar between 1999 and 2004.

I participated in design reviews where failure effect classification (e.g., hazardous, catastrophic, etc.) had to be expunged from our engineering presentations and replaced with something more positive (e.g., “issues“ instead of “problems”), lest we wanted to risk the wrath of buyers and program managers.

System safety assessment is in many ways similar to a failure mode effects and criticality analysis (FMECA) and fault-tree analysis (FTA), which I described in “Failure Mode and Criticality Analysis” (Circuit Cellar 270, 2013). However, with safety assessment, all possible system faults—including human error, electrical and mechanical subsystems’ faults, materials, and even manuals—should be analyzed. The impact of their faults and errors on the system safety must also be considered. The system hazard analysis then becomes a basis for subsystems’ specifications.

Fault Identification

Performing FMECA and FTA on your subsystem ensures all its potential faults become detected and identified. The faults’ signatures can be stored in a nonvolatile memory or communicated to a display console, but you cannot choose how the controller should respond to any one of those faults. You need the system hazard analysis to tell you what corrective action to take. The subsystem may have to revert to manual control, switch to another control channel, or enter a degraded performance mode. If you are not the system designer, you have little or no visibility of the faults’ potential impact on the system safety.
For example, an automobile consists of many subsystems (e.g., propulsion, steering, braking, entertainment, etc.). The propulsion subsystem comprises engine, transmission, fuel delivery, and possibly other subsystems. A part of the engine subsystem may include a full-authority digital engine controller (FADEC).

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Engine controllers were originally mainly mechanical devices, but with the arrival of the microprocessor, they have become highly sophisticated electronic controllers. Currently, most engines—including aircraft, marine, automotive, or utility (e.g., portable electrical generator turbines)—are controlled by some sort of a FADEC to achieve best performance and safety. A FADEC monitors the engine performance and controls the fuel flow via servomotor valves or stepper motors in response to the commanded thrust plus numerous operating conditions (e.g., atmospheric and internal pressures, external and internal engine temperatures in several locations, speed, load, etc.).

The safety assessment mostly depends on where and how essentially identical systems are being used. A car’s engine failure, for example, may be nothing more than a nuisance with little safety impact, while an aircraft engine failure could be catastrophic. Conversely, an aircraft nosewheel steer-by-wire can be automatically disconnected upon a fault. And, with a little increase of the pilots’ workload, it may be substituted by differential braking or thrust to control the plane on the ground. A similar failure of an automotive steer-by-wire system could be catastrophic for a car barreling down the freeway at 70 mph.

Analysis

System safety analysis comprises the following steps: identify and classify potential hazards and associated avoidance requirements, translate safety requirements into engineering requirements, design assessment and trade-off support to the ongoing design, assess the design’s relative compliance to requirements and document findings, direct and monitor specialized safety testing, and monitor and review test and field issues for safety trends.

The first step in hazard analysis is to identify and classify all the potential system failures. FMECA and FTA provide the necessary data. Table 1 shows an example and explains how the failure class is determined.

TABLE 1
This table shows the identification and severity classification of all potential system-level failures.
Eliminated Negligible Marginal Critical Catastrophic
No safety impact. Does not significantly reduce system safety. Required actions are within the operator’s capabilities. Reduces the capability of the system or operators to cope with adverse operating conditions. Can cause major illness, injury, or property damage. Significantly reduces the capability of the system or the operator’s ability to cope with adverse conditions to the extent of causing serious or fatal injury to several people. Total loss of system control resulting in equipment loss and/or multiple fatalities.

The next step determines each system-level failure’s frequency occurrence (see Table 2). This data comes from the failure rates calculated in the course of the reliability prediction, which I covered in my two-part article “Product Reliability” (Circuit Cellar 268–269, 2012) and in “Quality and Reliability in Design” (Circuit Cellar 272, 2013).

TABLE 2
Use this information to determine the likelihood of each individual system-level failure.
Frequent Probability of occurrence per operation is equal or greater than 1 × 10–3
Probable Probability of occurrence per operation is less than 1 × 10–3 or greater than 1 × 10–5
Occasional Probability of occurrence per operation is less than 1 × 10–5 or greater than 1 × 10–7
Remote Probability of occurrence per operation is less than 1 × 10–7 or greater than 1 × 10–9
Improbable Probability of occurrence per operation is less than 1 × 10–9

Based on the two tables, the predictive risk assessment matrix for every hazardous situation is created (see Table 3). The matrix is a composite of severity and likelihood and can be subsequently classified as low, medium, serious, or high. It is the system designer’s responsibility to evaluate the potential risk—usually with regard to some regulatory requirements—to specify the maximum hazard levels acceptable for every subsystem. The subsystems’ developers must comply with and satisfy their respective specifications. Electronic controllers in safety-critical applications must present low risk due to their subsystem fault.

TABLE 3
The risk assessment matrix is based on information from Table 1 and Table 2.
Probability / Severity Catastrophic (1) Critical (2) Marginal (3) Negligible (4)
Frequent (A) High High Serious Medium
Probable (B) High High Serious Medium
Occasional (C) High Serious Medium Low
Remote (D) Serious Medium Medium Low
Improbable (E) Medium Medium Medium Low
Eliminated (F) Eliminated

The system safety assessment includes both software and hardware. For aircraft systems, the required risk level determines the development and quality assurance processes as anchored in DO-178 Software Considerations in Airborne Systems and Equipment Certification and DO-254 Design Assurance Guidance for Airborne Electronic Hardware.

Some non-aerospace industries also use these two standards; others may have their own. Figure 1 shows a typical system development process to achieve system safety.
The common automobile power steering is, by design, inherently low risk, as it continues to steer even if the hydraulics fail. Similarly, some aircraft controls continue to be the old-fashioned cables but, like the car steering, with power augmentation. If the power fails, you just need more muscle. This is not the case with the more prevalent drive- or fly-by-wire systems.

FIGURE 1: The actions in this system-development process help ensure system safety.

FIGURE 1: The actions in this system-development process help ensure system safety.

Redundancy

How can the risk be mitigated to at least 109 probability for catastrophic events? The answer is redundancy. A well-designed electronic control channel can achieve about 105 probability of a single fault. That’s it. However, the FTA shows that by ANDing two such processing channels, the resulting failure probability will decrease to 1010, thus mitigating the risk to an acceptable level. An event with 109 probability of occurring is, for many systems, acceptable as just about “never happening,” but there are requirements for 1014 or even lower probability. Increasing redundancy will enable you to satisfy the specification.
Once I saw a controller comprising three independent redundant computers, with each computer also being triple redundant. Increasing safety by redundancy is why there are at least two engines on every commercial passenger carrying aircraft, two pilots, two independent hydraulic systems, two or more redundant controllers, power supplies, and so forth.

Human Engineering

Human engineering, to use military terminology, is not the least important for safety and sometimes not given sufficient attention. MIL-STD-1472F, the US Department of Defense’s Design Criteria Standard: Human Engineering, spells out many requirements and design constraints to make equipment operation and handling safe. This applies to everything, not just electrical devices.

For example, it defines the minimum size of controls if they may be operated with gloves, the maximum weight of equipment to be located above a certain height, the connectors’ location, and so forth. In my view, every engineer should look at this interesting standard.
Non-military equipment that requires some type of certification (e.g., most electrical appliances) is usually fine in terms of human engineering. Although there may not be a specific standard guiding its design in this respect, experienced certificating examiners will point out many shortcomings. But there are more than enough fancy and expensive products on the market, which makes you wonder if the designer ever tried to use the product himself.

By putting a little thought beyond just the functional design, you can make your product attractive, easy to operate, and safe. It may be as simple as asking a few people who are not involved with your design to use the product before you release it to production.

Test Pixel 1

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XBee Cloud Kit

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Member Profile: Scott Weber

Scott Weber

Scott Weber

LOCATION:
Arlington, Texas, USA

MEMBER STATUS:
Scott said he started his Circuit Cellar subscription late in the last century. He chose the magazine because it had the right mix of MCU programming and electronics.

TECH INTERESTS:
He has always enjoyed mixing discrete electronic projects with MCUs. In the early 1980s, he built a MCU board based on an RCA CDP1802 with wirewrap and programmed it with eight switches and a load button.

Back in the 1990s, Scott purchased a Microchip Technology PICStart Plus. “I was thrilled at how powerful and comprehensive the chip and tools were compared to the i8085 and CDP1802 devices I tinkered with years before,” he said.

RECENT EMBEDDED TECH ACQUISITION:
Scott said he recently treated himself to a brand-new Fluke 77-IV multimeter.

CURRENT PROJECTS:
Scott is building devices that can communicate through USB to MS Windows programs. “I don’t have in mind any specific system to control, it is something to learn and have fun with,” he said. “This means learning not only an embedded USB software framework, but also Microsoft Windows device drivers.”

THOUGHTS ON THE FUTURE OF EMBEDDED TECH:
“Embedded devices are popping up everywhere—in places most people don’t even realize they are being used. It’s fun discovering where they are being applied. It is so much easier to change the microcode of an MCU or FPGA as the unit is coming off the assembly line than it is to rewire a complex circuit design,” Scott said.

“I also like Member Profile Joe Pfeiffer’s final comment in Circuit Cellar 276: Surface-mount and ASIC devices are making a ‘barrier to entry’ for the hobbyist. You can’t breadboard those things! I gotta learn a good way to make my own PCBs!”