CAD to COVID-19: A Pandemic is No Constraint For the Bronx Science Robotics Team

Here is how the Robotics Team at Bronx Science is playing the cards that they have been dealt.


Akunna Njoku

A construction meeting takes place on Zoom, where seasoned Robotics members brainstorm, discuss issues with one another, and ask and answer questions about their robot design.

 I joined a Robotics Construction meeting on Google Meet in order to get a firsthand experience as to how the team is organizing their efforts during this year of remote schooling. The members welcomed me. “Is this the interest meeting?” I asked. “No, no this is the construction meeting. Everyone here has already been on the robotics team previously,” Xano Sweeting ’21, captain of the co-ed robotics team the SciBorgs, for the 2020-21 season, informs me. 

Given that they are veterans, I was already prepared for engineering jargon, of which I have no understanding, to be casually thrown around in the fifteen-person Google Meet virtual meeting. Words flitted from one four centimeter box to the next; it was a language that only those so fully immersed in the technological arts of robotics can understand. 

The members split off into specialized teams in breakout rooms, or rather into smaller google meets meetings. Cameras in the main meeting went off. Five minutes passed and Sweeting reminded everyone to record their brainstorming on whatever methods they are creating. 

When they return, Evan Rothstein ’21 starts off the presentation with a shared screen of his Jamboard, and they discuss the robot that they will be building this year. It will be essentially the same one that they built last year, but a smaller and more lightweight iteration of it. 

Spring Lin ’22 asks a question asking about a funneling issue that they encountered. Sweeting’s response is something about an intake roller and RPM. They discuss eliminating issues that arise with complexity, prototypes, and weight and size. Sweeting suggests that they have to brainstorm a solution for their roller intake. 

Rothstein stops his screen share, and next, Eva Manabat ’22 presents a diagram of the robot that she and her colleagues in her breakout room designed. She describes the parts of the robot, and also mentions that the gear last year had to be modified in terms of its angle; they angled it sideways rather than up to down.

Lin presents her breakout room’s drawing next and discusses how the robot functions. The intake goes into the hopper which is constantly spinning. It is an open hopper design. Sweeting asks why the hopper needs to be constantly spinning. Lin responds saying that it is necessary for the ball to be pushed in. 

Sweeting says that the ball is also likely to fall out and suggests that the hopper does not need to be constantly spinning. However, Benjamin Sison ’21 and Ian Etheridge ’23 quell his concerns by stating that the intake would push the ball up, thus troubleshooting the issue of the ball and spinning hooper. 

The members continued to present their robot designs, discussing their fresh and innovative ideas of intake rollers, along with the positions of the shooters, transitions, belts, mechanisms, and hoopers. 

They discuss the challenges of acquiring motors and gears for their robot; Sweeting brings up costs and budgets. “Mechanism wheels……those are like four hundred dollars.” 

Sweeting and Rossberg joke around about fully 3D printing their swerve. “I think swerve is the most ambitious thing we could do…this would be an amazing year to try swerve.” 

“I know it’s annoying that we all had similar ideas, but our designs won’t be the same, because we’re all our own designers,” Sweeting ’21 says with a chuckle. The meeting comes to an end. 

Later, I caught up with Xano Sweeting ’21 to ask him about his own experience, as the leader of such a renowned team.

How does it feel being the president of such a renowned team this year? Do you feel supported? Is it a lot of responsibility? Do you feel a lot of pressure ? 

It is pretty overwhelming.  It is an incredible honor and privilege to lead such hardworking and talented peers, but during a pandemic where everyone’s motivation and mental health is down, it’s hard to create momentum.  I feel a lot of pressure trying to make sure that the team is not completely lost next year when the majority of experienced members leave and the team will have to accept roughly half of its members as newbies.  

What are the major differences between the robotics team pre-COVID and currently in quarantine and amidst school shutdowns?

While we can all think and work remotely, hands on teamwork and interaction helps to create momentum.  Personal interaction helps to increase productivity so much. It is hard when people don’t have tangible materials to work on and test their ideas, but we are trying to work on design and programming virtually as best we can, by teaching concepts and by giving practice projects.  

What are steps that you are taking as president to make sure that things run smoothly now that the team cannot meet in person ?

I’m doing my best to try to enable my team as well as prospective members to have access to materials so they can do hands-on work.  I borrowed a 3D printer from school and lent mine to a leadership member so that we can try to print parts for prototyping that I can give to members to work on their designs. I’m budgeting to figure out what we can feasibly build and buy with the tools that we have (while also abiding by school liability rules). I got the team meeting regularly again with department and leadership meetings, so we now have a routine, and I keep trying to see what more we can do than just remote stuff this year.  

Walk me through the general process of designing and building a robot ?

The day of kickoff for the FRC competition, the game description is live streamed to us, and we receive a roughly 2-300 page manual with all the design constraints and rule for our game.  We then spend the rest of the day reading the manual and coming up with mechanism ideas in small groups. Then, we present and vote on the best ideas as a team.  We spend the first week or so prototyping these mechanisms to find which ones are feasible and will work best. Then, we continue the design iterative process until we have a full robot design that we can manufacture.  While prototyping is happening, the programming department writes applications for the mechanisms and the game.  The applications do things like track game props using vision sensors, autonomously navigate, auto align with field elements for things like shooting or scoring, and what not.  

Is there any cool robotics jargon or slang that you have to share with readers?

The basic mechanism names include; shooter, hopper, climber, lift, intake, drivetrain — types include: holo omni, mecanum, tank, swerve — and whatever names we find for game specific mechanisms.  CAD is pretty universal for 3D modeling.  Git is a software sharing client that all programmers use.  We have pneumatic pistons on our bots, which are the compressors that power them. ESC or electronics speed controllers control our motors.  PDB is a power distribution board.  Rio is what we call the Roborio, our programmable and remote controlled control computer for the robot.  

Are you still taking team members ? If so, what is the best part of the robotics team, and why should they join despite the virtual situation?

We are not allowed to accept new members this year; however, we are putting out tutorials and projects for anyone in the school who is interested in learning 3D modeling, programming, electronics or just general technical skills.  Demonstrating interest and engagement as well as ability to learn and produce good work will get students a foot in the door for their tryouts next year.  We will know that they have the skills and commitment that we need from robotics members, and it will make accepting them onto the team next year a lot easier.  

Do you know how the robotics tournaments or competitions will take place now that we’re in a pandemic, or are you all still in the dark about that? 

No, we have some idea.  There is a remote competition for actual robots in which we can compete, with or without a physical robot.  The robot can be tested on its ability alone, or a technical binder can be turned in, explaining all of the theoretical robot’s abilities.  Along with that competition, there is also an innovation challenge. Currently, I’m not sure what it will look like exactly, but in general terms, the team will be challenged to design and prototype a solution to some real world problem that they give us.  And there is a game design challenge where we can design our own robotics game, including 3D modeling all of the field components, come up with all of the rules, follow their design constraints, and probably submit a heck of a user’s manual.  

Do you have any final words to any interested robotics students?

If you are interested in robotics at all, the team is an accelerator for your interest.  It’s probably the best thing to happen to me at Bronx Science.  The motivation that I drew from working around like-minded and hard working peers on projects that interested me, and using skills and knowledge that interested me, has definitely catapulted my skills as a team player, a leader, an organizer, an engineer, and more.  It’s a huge commitment, but the payoff matches it.  You get more than what you put in. 

“I know it’s annoying that we all had similar ideas, but our designs won’t be the same, because we’re all our own designers,” said Xano Sweeting ’21.