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SEFSD Member Wins FIRST Tech Challenge Against 7,000+ Other Teams!



All team photos were taken at the World Championships in Houston TX

Frank Sutton Reporting

     Did you know that a member of Silent Electric Flyers San Diego literally drove and led his team to winning the 2024 For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Tech Challenge (FTC) World Championship in Houston, TX April 17-20?  Who am I speaking about you must be wondering?  I’m very pleased to inform you it is our 17 year old SEFSD Pilot and Electroglider, NEIL ZHU!

     The FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) is an annnual robotics competition for students in grades   7-12 to compete head-to-head, by designing, building, and programming a robot to compete in an alliance format against other teams.  CONGRATULATIONS to Neil and his Robotics Team,  “The Clueless!”  Actually, his team is not clueless at all when it comes to the amazing world of high technology robotics!

     This year out of the 7000+ teams from around the world, 224 teams advanced into the World Championships.  Neil’s robotics team won the San Diego Regional Championships and set a new world record in March!  As a result, The Clueless qualified for last month’s 2024 FTC World Championships in Houston, TX.

     The first 3 days of the World Championships were qualification matches where every team played 10 matches against randomized opponents.  Neil’s team almost went undefeated in the qualification matches with 9 wins and only 1 loss.  The team advanced into the division playoffs facing against 4 other alliances.  The Clueless swept through their division winning both the      Divisional Semifinals and Finals!  This led to The Clueless advancing into the Worlds Semifinals in which they outplayed their opponents and then advanced to the Finals.  Facing the #1 ranked team in Australia, the #1 ranked team in Canada, and the #2 ranked team in Romania,  Neil remarked,

“It was going to be a very tough match.  Thankfully our alliance was equally strong having the #1 ranked team in Romania, the #1 ranked team in South Africa, and us, the new world  record holder and #2 ranked team in the world.” 

     The Clueless Team lost their first finals match due to a failure in the 30-second autonomous program.  They came back in the second round winning 366 points vs 326 points, a 40-point      margin.  Then they moved on to the third round, the tiebreaker.  Both Neil’s team and their     partners’ autonomous programs worked flawlessly.  Neil drove the 2-minute driver-controlled   period near perfectly, he quickly cycled back and forth and swiftly avoided their opponent’s     defense.  The Clueless Team held their lead throughout the match and finally outplayed their   opponent scoring 400 points vs 374 points!  Neil and his mother, Spring, both smiled proudly at me as Neil said,

“We won the 2024 FTC World Championships!”

I was smiling proudly as well!

     Here is the YouTube link to the World Championships’ last match of the finals video:

Note:  In this final match video you can clearly see Neil wearing a yellow shirt in the upper left corner as he picked up his transmitter at the 30-second mark and then demonstrating superb   driving skills to win the final match and World Championship!  Very well done, Neil!

     And this is the YouTube link to the Driver’s Point of View video:

     Neil’s roles on team “The Clueless” were being the mechanical design lead and the main   driver.  Neil remarked,

“A lot of the skills required for robotics are exactly what I learned from doing RC airplanes.  Over the past 7 years, RC airplanes have been an important part of my life.  RC airplanes have taught me how to design and test systems, critical thinking to solve problems, and most         importantly how to deal with failures and handle high-stress situations.  I’m incredibly     grateful for the opportunity that SEFSD has provided me and I hope to continue my passion for RC airplanes and Robotics!”

     After viewing the excellent YouTube videos and reading more about his world-record breaking events, I had several questions for the young Robotics Master…..

     At first glance the video reminded me of Battle Bots ( which Alex and I both love to watch), but rather than destroying the opponent’s robot, yours competes to perform a task better than your opponent’s robot, is that right?


     “Yes, the main task for this year’s game is to stack the hexagon plastic pieces called       “pixels” up on the backdrop.  The intaking and deposit system that I designed is one of the fastest in the world.  All we have to do to grab the pixels is drive in, drive out, no time wasted.  Our speed and efficiency are one of the reasons why we were able to make it to the worlds      finals and actually win the finals.”


     It looks like the assigned task changes from year to year to challenge teams with something new, right?


     “Yes, the assigned task changes each year.  Last year was stacking cones on a pole.  Two years ago it was delivering balls and cubes to a “shipping hub”.  This year is stacking             hexagonal pieces on a slanted board.”


     Who pays for all the hardware and electronics needed to construct one of these robots?  Looks to me like this could quickly get out of hand with costs!


     “It does cost a lot of money to run a robotics team, everything added up we spent around  $7,000 this year for robot parts, equipment, tools, etc.  But we also make around $7,000 from the robotics summer camp that we host.  We also have a lot of companies sponsoring us, for            example, Qualcomm, General Atomic, Raise 3D, and HiTEC.  HiTEC offered to transport our equipment to Houston for free and provided a lot of titanium gear high torque servos for us.  We actually visited HiTEC North American Sales and Marketing Headquarters here in San Diego.   I saw Jim’s big planes in one of the rooms, but unfortunately, Jim wasn’t in that day.”


     I’m very impressed too by the 30-second autonomous phase, I would think of it like Tesla’s AutoPilot or Full Self Driving system.  How in the world did you program your robot to act autonomously?  Does it use ultrasonic sensors, radar, or cameras to “see” where it goes like Tesla cars?  If you can’t tell me because it is Top Secret, no problem, I understand TS.


     “Sure.  We have 20 sensors on our robot for it to know what it’s doing in the autonomous period.  We have everything from color sensor, ultrasonic sensors, hall effect encoders,         Artificial Intelligence (AI) cameras, Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU), current draw          sensors, odometry, etc.  Below is a picture of the sensors on our robot.  Since my role was     mechanical design, build, and test, I don’t know the specifics about how they wrote the     autonomous program.”


     Are you and your Clueless Team planning to defend your World Championship next year? 


     ”Hopefully we can compete at the world championship again next year.  But the               opportunity to compete at the world championship is highly competitive, only 2 out of 70 teams are able to advance out of the San Diego region each year.  In fact, last year even though we held one of the highest solo scores in the world, we still weren’t able to advance to the world championships due to bad luck, mechanical failures, etc.  We are going to try our best next year and hope we make it to worlds again.


     Holy Cow, Neil!  WOW!  Thank you for these answers and now I’m more impressed than ever!  I will never understand how you can make the robot do what it does so well.  I SALUTE YOU and the Clueless Team!  Certainly the world needs more young engineers like yourself and I believe you will help to change the world for the better.  Keep up the amazing and outstanding work!  Congratulations again Neil, and thank you!



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