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.

Issue 284: EQ Answers

Can you name all of the signals in the original 25-pin RS-232 connector?

Pins 9, 10, 11, 18, and 25 are unassigned/reserved. The rest are:

Pin Abbreviation Source Description
1 PG - Protective ground
2 TD DTE Transmitted data
3 RD DCE Received data
4 RTS DTE Request to send
5 CTS DCE Clear to send
6 DSR DCE Data Set Ready
7 SG - Signal ground
8 CD DCE Carrier detect
12 SCD DCE Secondary carrier detect
13 SCTS DCE Secondary clear to send
14 STD DTE Secondary transmitted data
15 TC DCE Transmitter clock
16 SRD DCE Secondary received data
17 RC DCE Receiver clock
19 SRTS DTE Secondary request to send
20 DTR DTE Data terminal ready
21 SQ DCE Signal quality
22 RI DCE Ring indicator
23 - DTE Data rate selector
24 ETC DTE External transmitter clock


What is the key difference between a Moore state machine and a Mealy state machine?

The key difference between Moore and Mealy is that in a Moore state machine, the outputs depend only on the current state, while in a Mealy state machine, the outputs can also be affected directly by the inputs.


What are some practical reasons you might choose one state machine over the other?

In practice, the difference between Moore and Mealy in most situations is not very important. However, when you’re trying to optimize the design in certain ways, it sometimes is.

Generally speaking, a Mealy machine can have fewer state variables than the corresponding Moore machine, which will save physical resources on a chip. This can be important in low-power designs.

On the other hand, a Moore machine will typically have shorter logic paths between flip-flops (total combinatorial gate delays), which will enable it to run at a higher clock speed than the corresponding Mealy machine.


What is the key feature that distinguishes a DSP from any other general-purpose CPU?

Usually, the key distinguishing feature of a DSP when compared with a general-purpose CPU is that the DSP can execute certain signal-processing operations with few, if any, CPU cycles wasted on instructions that do not compute results.

One of the most basic operations in many key DSP algorithms is the MAC (multiply-accumulate) operation, which is the fundamental step used in matrix dot and cross products, FIR and IIR filters, and fast Fourier transforms (FFTs). A DSP will typically have a register and/or memory organization and a data path that enables it to do at least 64 MAC operations (and often many more) on unique data pairs in a row without any clocks wasted on loop overhead or data movement. General-purpose CPUs do not generally have enough registers to accomplish this without using additional instructions to move data between registers and memory.

Electrical Engineering Crossword (Issue 285)

The answers to Circuit Cellar’s April electronics engineering crossword puzzle are now available.


2.    STOKESSHIFT—Can reduce photon energy [two words]
8.    HYSTERESISLOOP—Its area measures the energy dispersed during a magnetization cycle [two words]
11.    NANDGATE—A shoe in when playing “true or false?” [two words]
13.    YOCTOPROJECT—An open-source alliance designed to help Linux aficionados [two words]
15.    RANKINE—°R
17.    INTERNALNET—A network that resides in and around you
18.    SEQUENTIALCIRCUIT—Dependent on past input [two words]
19.    NANOHENRY—Its abbreviation is the same as the state bordered by Massachusetts, Maine, and Vermont
20.    BINARYCODEDDECIMAL—Makes good use of a 4- or 8-bit nibble [three words]


1.    BIREFRINGENCE—Divides light into ordinary and extraordinary rays
3.    SQUIRREL—An object-oriented programming language
4.    SMARTMETER—Records and shares energy usage information [two words]
5.    MESHANALYSIS—A circuit evaluation method [two words]
6.    LYOTFILTER—Uses [1. Down] to produce a narrow frequency range of wavelengths [two words]
7.    LINEARREGULATOR—Keeps things steady [two words]
9.    BRAGGDIFFRACTION—Occurs when electromagnetic radiation disperses [two words]
10.    AUTODYNE—An amplifying vacuum tube-based circuit
12.    FEMTOWATT—10–15 W
14.    UNIJUCTION—Can be used to measure magnetic flux
16.    PEAKER—Increases gain at higher frequencies

Electrical Engineering Crossword (Issue 284)

The answers to Circuit Cellar’s March electronics engineering crossword puzzle are now available.



1.    CROSSEDFIELDAMPLIFIER—This vacuum tube is capable of high output power [three words]
3.    HYPERVISOR—Produces and runs virtual machines
5.    DYNATRON—Uses negative resistance to keep a tuned circuit oscillating
8.    ULTRAVIOLETLIGHT—Gives some substances “a healthy glow” [two words]
13.    ZEROMOMENTPOINT—A moment of respite for robots [three words]
14.    THERMOSONIC—Connects to silicon ICs
17.    CATSWHISKER—An outdated electronic component mainly used in antique radios [two words]
18.    FLEMINGVALVE—Invented in the early 1900s, this was known as the first vacuum tube [two words]
19.    BACKBONE—Makes LANs connect


2.    DEMODULATOR—Recovers information from a regulated waveform
4.    SQUEGGING—This type of circuit oscillates erratically
5.    DOWNMIXING—Audio manipulation process
6.    REYNOLDSNUMBER—Used for flow pattern predictions [two words]
7.    LATENCY—Used with bandwidth to ascertain network connection speed
9.    THICKFILM—This type of chip resistor is commonly used in electronic and electrical devices [two words]
10.    DYNAMIC—Its memory is volatile
11.    CRYOTRON—Operates via superconductivity
12.    NETMASK—Creates neighborhoods of IP addresses
15.    HOROLOGY—E.g., clepsydras, chronometers, and sundials
16.    SEEBECK—An effect that creates electricity



3-D Integration Impact and Challenges

People want transistors—lots of them. It pretty much doesn’t matter what shape they’re in, how small they are, or how fast they operate. Simply said, the more the merrier. Diversity is also good. The more different the transistors, the more useful and interesting the product. And without any question, the cheaper the transistors, the better. So the issue is, how best to achieve as many diverse transistors at the lowest cost possible.

One approach is more chips. Placing a lot of chips close together on a small board will produce a system with many transistors. Another way is more transistors per chip. Keep on scaling the technology to provide more transistors in one or a few chips.

silicon chipThe third option combines these two approaches. Let’s have many chips with many transistors and end up with a huge number of transistors. However, there is a limit to this approach. It’s well understood that scaling is coming to an end. And placing multiple chips on a board can have a terrible effect on a system’s overall speed and power dissipation.

But there is an elegant and intellectually simple solution. Rather than connecting these chips horizontally across a board, connect them vertically, providing N times more transistors, where N is the number of chips stacked one above another. Such vertical, 3-D integration was first broached by William Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor at Bell Labs in 1947. Shockley described the 3-D integration concept in a 1958 patent, which was followed by Merlin Smith and Emanuel Stern’s 1967 patent outlining how best to produce the holes between layers. We now call these inter-layer holes through silicon vias (TSVs). Technology is still catching up to these 3-D concepts.

Three-dimensional integration offers exciting advantages. For example, the vertical distance between layers is much shorter than the horizontal dimensions across a chip. Three-dimensional circuits, therefore, operate faster and dissipate less power than their 2-D equivalent. A 3-D system is shockingly small, permitting it to fit much more conveniently into a tiny space. Think small portable electronics (e.g., credit cards).

But the most exciting advantage of 3-D integration isn’t the small form factor, higher speed, or lower power; it’s the natural ability to support many disparate technologies and functions as one integrated, heterogeneous system. Even better, each chip layer can be optimized for a particular function and technology, since the individual chips can each be developed in isolation. No more trading off different capabilities to combine disparate technologies on the same chip. Now we can use the absolute best technology for each layer and a completely different and optimized technology for a different layer. This approach enables all kinds of novel applications that until now couldn’t have been conceived or would have been cost-prohibitive.

Imagine placing a microprocessor plane below a MEMS-accelerometer plane below an analog plane (with ADCs) below a temperature sensor, all below a video imager (which has to be at the top to “see”). All of these planes fit together into a tiny (smaller than a fingernail) silicon cube while operating at higher speeds and dissipating lower power.

There are technical issues, including: how to best make the TSVs, how to construct the system architecture to fully exploit the system’s 3-D nature, how to deliver power across these multiple planes, how to synchronize this system to best move data around the cube, how to manage system design complexity, and much more.

Two issues rise to the top. The first is power dissipation (specifically, power density). When many transistors switch at a high rate within a tiny volume, the temperature rises, which can impair performance and reliability. I believe this issue, albeit difficult, is technically solvable and simply will require a lot of good engineering.

The real problem is cost. How do we mature this technology quickly enough to drive the costs down to a point where volume commercial applications are possible? Many companies are close to producing tangible 3-D-based products. Cubes of highly dense memory will likely be the first serious and cost-effective product. Early versions are already available. Three-dimensional integration will soon be here in a serious way with what will be a fascinating assortment of all kinds of exciting new products. You won’t have to wait too long.