A Challenge, a Concorde and a Mystical Magnetic Field – Part 1

How do these three seemingly unrelated items morph together to form a coherent story, I ask you? It seems almost impossible to think that some sort of challenge or competition can be related to a Concorde or to a mystical magnetic field, am I correct? Well, I ask you to continue reading to find out the tale of the links between these on a project that has been on-going since January and has taken up most of my life.

Ok, maybe it’s not that dramatic, but the essence of it is true. As mentioned in my last post, I had entered a competition called the Toyota Technology Challenge, in which my small team of three had to plan, prototype and manufacture a buggy capable of navigating an obstacle course, while maintaining a high level of efficiency and environmentally friendliness.

There we have it. A challenge. For an inexperienced bunch like us, it was an interesting proposition and one we gladly took up without second thought. The first out of many hurdles arrived as such: The challenge website initially suggested that teams start in early September researching and developing ideas. Then, over the following months, assemble a buggy, document everything in a coherent piece of paperwork and submit it to see if you gained a place in the regional finals. The deadline for this is the end of February. The fun part came when the organising teacher only told us about the challenge and the deadline mid-January. We in effect had six weeks to research, build, test and document the entire process within a 20,000 word, 30-page document.
Astoundingly, we did it. The document was written, the buggy was finished (or so we thought…) and we submitted our astounding, if I may say so myself, piece of paperwork and waited for the response of the judges to reveal whether we had secured a place in the regionals or not. It was the only week during these two terms where I did not have to worry about the buggy, and my last taste of freedom for a while to come!

Before any misconceptions arise, I would like to clarify that I did and still am enjoying this process, contrary to my attempts of creating an interesting story!

Anyway, we waited. Then, on a misty Monday Morning [fantastic use of alliteration there], came the news from Toyota. We had successfully achieved a place in the regionals! The entire technology department were in on the news, with the organising teacher doing a little victory dance and even my tech. teacher, who is a self proclaimed “mean person”, was brighter than usual. However, this joy was short lived, as testing had shown that the motors were continuously jamming. After pondering many quick-fixes for three days, we decided to completely overhaul the gearbox system, taking away a week for algorithm testing. Following this, it turned out that another problem arose with the motor driver chip, leading us to ponder over a few other quick-fixes, including a similar pin-compatible chip that the competition rules disallowed (yes, we were that desperate), none of which worked. We ended up skipping games, with the correct permission of course, to stay in the workshop and hotwire in a brand new chip (L298N replaced the L293D, for those interested), in the hope of our buggy finally working. Note that this procedure was done on Thursday; the regionals were on the Monday.

We turned it on, and behold it did not work. Typical. It was at this stage where I almost had a breakdown (we all had one during the competition)! I had to leave to a dentist appointment [fun!], while our chief systems engineer stayed behind and trawled through a lit of potential causes for this climatic failure. It was just before I was about to send out a really gloomy email to the team and supporting teachers, reasoning why we might have to drop out, when the Systems engineer texted me with possibly the best combination of seemingly mundane words ever: it works!

Turns out the problem lay with some dodgy code slowing down the motors incrementally every loop cycle, or that’s what I think it was anyway.

We had a functional piece of hardware, meaning we were able to go to the regionals!

Algorithm testing involved us sitting in a computer room for three hours on a Friday after school, assisting the systems engineer with his coding efforts. A revised algorithm used a digital compass to know its position on the course relative to the end. It was a long, tiring, but successful night, and we went home in the knowledge that we stood a good chance of winning the regionals on the Monday.

Now, this is where stuff gets good, but unfortunately, I am a far too tired to continue, so I shall leave you on a cliff-hanger and make you wait for part 2…

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