A challenge, a Concorde and a Mystical Magnetic Field – Part 2

A few weeks ago I wrote a post chronicling the journey to the regional finals of the Toyota Technology Challenge (TTC). Following a relatively simple German internal exam and a slightly controversial post for Collatyral Damage over the course of this past week, I am now able to continue my telling of this perilous journey through the TTC.

If I am totally honest, the journey was indeed perilous, as I shall explain shortly.

So, we had a functioning buggy and a fairly decent algorithm ready to go. We thought we stood a fairly good chance at winning the regional finals on the Monday following the Friday after school testing session I mentioned earlier. We enjoyed a fairly relaxed weekend and on Monday, gathered all our stuff, including some potent superglue, a tool kit, a wire spool, two laptops, two types of tape, a spare microcontroller and everything else we thought we would need if the worse came to worse.

At 10:35am we were off on the way to the Duxford Imperial War Museum, squashed within my teacher’s Mini Cooper on a (perilous) 2 hour drive out of London. See the peril in that?

Anyway, we arrived and clambered out of the compact car, in uniform and the rest, marching into the museum with our modest red project tray, greeted by the museum manager and a representative from Toyota. We were shown our respective table, underneath the wing of the BA Concord, and instructed to set up. Perplexed by this instruction, we observed other teams walking in with an arsenal of posters, demonstration vehicles and pin-up boards, and asked ourselves whether we should have done the same. After some discussion, we concluded that I was a much better idea to get the buggy working first than waste time on articles the judges did not even look at.

There were seven teams there, all of which had decent looking buggies with designes we considered too hard to implement. Compared to these masterpieces, our buggy was an un-environmentally friendly, plastic built, heavy piece of machinery. Continuing with our surveillance of the other teams, we had internally decided who it would be that would beat us to the National final: a team dressed in orange stripes with a fairly large amount of intuitive ideas on their buggy. One member from this team, who I presumed to be the project manager, seemed to share this view, egger to show the creation that he had constructed with, we believed, assistance from the teacher.

Our 10-minute test period had arrived. During this time, teams have 10 minutes to prepare and test their buggy on the course before the qualifying run. During this test, the buggy which we had seen do so well in the computer room the previous Friday, was spinning out of control. The team manager of the orange-striped team, came over and demonstrated using his compass that his buggies digital compass (mounted on a roller-ball pen, amusingly enough) failed due to a mystical magnetic field located within a steel-constructed airplane hanger, most likely as there were some steel supports or AC power lines running under the track.

This was very unfortunate, as the algorithm heavily relied on the compass to navigate its way through the course. Due to our accelerated construction, the buggy would seldom travel in a straight line, resulting in much more complex algorithms. Our systems engineer, frustrated that his work on the Friday evening had gone to waste, coded up a new algorithm remarkably quickly within 30 minutes on-site with his laptop. He only managed to do this by scavenging bits from older revisions and modifying them, but it got to the extent where, in hindsight, he told me that he “did not know what the hell it was doing”!

This was done in the 35-minute break we had between the test run and the presentation to the judges.

We were called to give our presentation. Having requested a presentation clicker and told that there were none available, we proceeded to set up my MacBook Pro with the presentation and hook it up to the projector, using the Apple remote as an advancer. We had memorised the presentation, excellently compiled by the Chief Designer, and had timed it so that it was just under the allocated 5 minutes. We later found it amusing that the judges had forgotten to time the presentation!

Following this, we were bombarded with questions from the judges during Q&A. These were fielded remarkably well, adding in extra bits of information, like an explanation our awesome HiMH 1.2V battery to Alkaline 1.5V switching system, later being told that “once [we] got started, [we] could not be stopped”.

It was now time for our qualifying run: having seen other teams’ buggies try and fail the course, we were sceptical of our chances. We had three runs, in which the buggy went tantalisingly close to the end and turned back, jammed on an obstacle, and crashed face on into a wall. It was safe to say that the design, combined with the algorithm, had all lead to a spectacle of a failure. All this was occurring while our ever-supportive teacher stood sniggering in the background. He would later go on to say (approximately) that “Its always good to be sarcastic with you boys: it bumps you down a notch and keeps you down to earth”. [I am being a bit mean to my teacher, who has had to deal with my highly annoying nature, but it makes for a good story and is not entirely false].

We went back to our station, with the belief that we had missed out on a place in the national finals.

The call came to gather around the podium to announce the winners. After the mandatory thanks and “you are all winners” part of it, things got down to business. 7th was not us. We had assumed we had achieved 6th or 5th place.

6th was not us. We all agreed on 5th.

5th passed without our names called. At this stage, even my teacher was surprised that we had definitely achieved 4th.

To our surprise, 4th was not us. “Ok,” we said to ourselves, “we are almost definitely 3rd now”.

3rd was not us. We were all extremely happy to have at least won runners up with our performance.

2nd was not us. Now we were all looking at each other perplexed: “had they missed us out earlier on?”, “was there a counting mistake?”, “There must be a mistake!”

The team in orange stripes were the runners up.

Convinced of a mistake, especially because we believed that the team in orange stripes had the better buggy, we waited for them to notice an error somewhere.

It turned out, however, that there was no error, and 1st place was called, and we walked triumphantly, if not a little confused, onto the podium to receive the certificate. Against all odds, we had made it to the National final!

Following this, there was a short feedback session, where the judges told us how to improve the presentation (which was what actually won us the day) and improve the environmentally-friendliness of our buggy by, you know, not making it out of non-recyclable plastic!

The task was set, and we had 27 days to fulfil it.

I shall leave it there, but part 3 will delve into the new challenges we faced in the run-up to the National finals.


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