Nashua Outlook: BAE engineers open way for FIRST robots

The Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner wouldn’t be very interesting if you had to control it with a joystick.

Roughly speaking, that explains why two BAE Systems software engineers have spent more than six months working “full time and beyond” to rewrite the controlling software for the frenzied robot competition known as FIRST.

They want those weird and wonderful devices built by high school teams under Dean Kamen’s version of “Robot Wars” to be able to do more on their own.

“What the crowd likes to see is teams driving, but real robotics is the autonomous mode,” said Elizabeth Finn, of Merrimack.

Finn and BAE Systems colleague Kenneth Streeter, working with folks from Worcester Polytechnic Institute and elsewhere, have crafted 24,198 lines of code in the C and C++ languages – code that will soon be given to teenagers around the world to be mangled and twisted in preparation for competitions in the spring.

“Given” is the right word, because the control system is being released as an open-source project.

“Even open-source projects have a core of engineers, making real-world salaries – that’s the role BAE is doing,” said Streeter.

Most of the group’s work, in fact, has involved translating proprietary code developed by companies that got FIRST to where it is now, notably National Instruments, which created the new robot controller with a special LabVIEW language, and software firm Wind River.

Anybody will be able to use the code for future FIRST competitions, adding their own tweaks and creating a library of tools along the lines of SourceForge, a huge online repository of open-source code.

“It has to be accessible to everybody … from rookies, almost a cookbook, to really skilled kids, who can dig deep and roll their own,” Finn said.

More sophisticated

Autonomous operation has been a small part of FIRST until now, usually occupying fewer than 20 seconds of each two-minute battle, with the rest involving student-controlled driving.

The 2009 game hasn’t been announced yet, but it probably won’t involve much extra for “autonomous mode” because the software is still so wet behind the ears. By 2010, though, there should be big changes in FIRST because the robots will be able to react much better to their surroundings.

“They’ll be able to do more sophisticated things than they have in the past,” Streeter said.

He ticked off a list of sensors, from cameras and rangefinders to odometers and gyros, that the software will eventually be able to handle to help robots figure out what they should do to win.

Part of the project is creating “libraries” of software modules that teams can plug and play into their code during the six weeks after the game is announced and before the contest.

“The idea is to get them to say, what can I do with that – high-level (design) – instead of spending all the six weeks working on the low-level code,” Streeter said.

Finn is working on vision libraries. This year, she says, the cameras will be able to detect color; down the road, they might detect shapes and even character recognition.

Sensors and robotics toodling around by themselves makes folks like me think of Roomba, but Streeter’s parallel is much cooler: the DARPA Grand Challenge, in which corporations and colleges built autonomous cars that could drive themselves across a desert obstacle course.

All this work is part of a “technology refresh” that FIRST decided to undertake last year to pep up the contest, which has grown from a little Manchester-area contest in 1992 to an international event that may end up surpassing the Segway as Kamen’s best-known legacy.

Engineer-loaded BAE Systems, which has long provided FIRST with huge amounts of people-hours and money and is probably the program’s biggest corporate contributor, was an obvious source of expertise. The company has a $150,000 budget for this project.

(The company doesn’t do this entirely out of the goodness of its heart. FIRST is a high-profile way to get high school students interested in engineering, and firms such as BAE need a steady stream of future engineers to keep their work force up to date.)

Finn and Streeter signed up partly because, like a lot of techy parents in the Nashua region, they have been mentors for FIRST teams and FIRST Lego League teams, and they know the value of the program. Both have teenagers on teams this year.

This FIRST connection gives them insight into the needs of this unusual community, but it also has drawbacks, Finn says. Other parents know that she is getting an advance look at the 2009 game, which won’t be announced until January, and hope to weasel out some inside information.

“I’m getting e-mail from people saying, ‘What can you tell me?’ “ she said, laughing.

Fortunately, BAE engineers are experienced in not talking to other people about their work.