Newsletter: Triple Helix Robotics – October 2020 update

Here’s what Triple Helix has been up to this month!

Our internal drone competition is off the ground
Triple Helix students and mentors are flying their quadcopters at home and at the Peninsula STEM Gym, several team members having assembled their kits and configured their transmitters and FPV goggles.  Soon, our team will have a flock of drones in the air, and we’ll start designing some game challenges so we can put our new flying skills to the test.

We still have room for new team members!  If you are a high school student on the peninsula (or an aspiring mentor to a peninsula HS student!) and would like to join Triple Helix and participate in our FPV drone competition, you’re invited to:

  • Register with the team via (this is an annual requirement for all students and mentors).
  • Register with the FAA as a drone operator under The Exception for Recreational Flyers at The cost is $5 for 3 years of registration.
  • Join us on the team Slack where you will learn how you can pick up your kit of parts and start the process of building your quad!

We’re also meeting virtually on Google Meet on Tuesday evenings at 7pm— you are welcome to join us there!

Triple Helix is registered to compete in the 2021 FRC season– whatever that entails
Thanks to all of our wonderful sponsors, but especially our longtime partners DoD STEM and NASA Langley Research Center, we have secured our registration in this year’s FIRST Robotics Competition season, which we think will be mostly made up of a number of interesting virtual challenges and projects.  We’re excited to learn more about the season as we get closer to the January 9 kickoff, and of course we still hold out hope that we’ll be able to compete safely next spring/summer in some in-person FIRST Chesapeake events playing a slightly updated version of the 2020 FRC game.


Newsletter: Triple Helix Robotics – September 2020 update

Triple Helix Robotics wishes everyone well! We’re proud to share the following long-overdue updates about our team…

Triple Helix returns to flight with a FPV drone competition Triple Helix Robotics begins a new school year, our team leaders have been thinking about how we’ll accomplish the goals of the team– inspiring students with STEM– within the restrictions placed on us by the pandemic we’re all living through. We have decided to expand beyond the scope of the FIRST Robotics Competition by starting a new (and mostly remote) parallel program which we’re calling the Tele-Operated Robotics Competition (TORC). This is intended as an internal tech challenge within Triple Helix involving small robotic vehicles which can be built by students and mentors at home, occasionally visiting the Peninsula STEM Gym for guidance from mentors and access to specialized tools. We looked at multiple options for the robot platform and went with the option the students were most excited about: “CineWhoopclass” first-person view (FPV) quadcopters.
How can I get involved in the Triple Helix drone competition?Students and mentors interested in participating in our Tele-Operated Robotics Competition are invited to:

  • Register with the team via (this is an annual requirement for all students and mentors).
  • Register with the FAA as a drone operator under The Exception for Recreational Flyers at The cost is $5 for 3 years of registration.
  • Join us on the team Slack where you will learn how you can pick up your kit of parts and start the process of building your quad!

Our first skills-building activity will be assembling a battery pack required to power the goggles you wear to see the video feed from the onboard camera. Building this pack will teach you the soldering skills you will need to wire the quadcopter.

Peninsula STEM Gym re-opens serving FRC, FTC, and indoor drone competition teams
The STEM Gym has moved into a new warehouse, but we’re still located at the same address in central Newport News. Our new setup offers us a location for continued development of our FRC robot for the extended Infinite Recharge season, as well as enough meeting and office spaces to support an adequately socially-distanced STEM program. We’re also offering a complete FTC field for any of our friends who are playing the new FTC game ULTIMATE GOAL, and over the next few weeks we’ll also be building an aerodrome for our FPV drone challenge! Thanks to all who have supported this new evolution of our innovative STEM Gym space.


2020 summer project: vision aiming testbed

During the summer of 2020 Triple Helix designed and built a testbed for developing software code to accurately aim a turret on a moving robot base. This first generation uses an unpowered base on casters, with a camera and laser pointer on a geared pan/tilt. The goal is to be able to automatically hold the laser spot stationary on a vision target while manually rolling and spinning the mobile base. If successful, this can be the basis for future turret style shooters for Triple Helix to use in competition.


GrabCAD repository

GitHub repository

Triple Helix returns to flight with a FPV drone competition

As Triple Helix Robotics begins a new school year, our team leaders have been thinking about how we’ll accomplish the goals of the team– inspiring students with STEM– within the restrictions placed on us by the pandemic we’re all living through. In these slides, senior mentor Todd Ferrante explains the team’s current thinking in response to the continued public health crisis: this season, it’s up to us to create the spark of inspiration that will draw people– students and mentors– to participate in the team this year.

Triple Helix returns to flight by coming together to create the Tele Operated Robotics Competition– an internal tech challenge involving small bots which can be built by students at home and at the Peninsula STEM Gym, using the tools and techniques that are available to us.

Responding to the realities of the Coronavirus slide deck, last updated 28 Apr 2021

FPV Quad Build Guide slide deck, last updated 28 Apr 2021

Newsletter: Peninsula STEM Gym seeks new home

Menchville High School’s competitive robotics team Triple Helix competes in a STEM sport where the shape and structure of the official playing field changes each year.  Prior to establishing the Peninsula STEM Gym in fall 2018, the team’s first opportunity each season to see & touch the playing field was when the team arrived at their first tournament of the year.  (Imagine playing an athletic sport competitively without the benefit of practicing on a court!)

Since that time, the Peninsula STEM Gym in central Newport News has offered local student robotics teams a 2,500 square foot practice area for testing robot functionality and improving their game. The facility has enabled teams to gain driving practice, discover ways to iterate and improve their robot designs, and better prepare to compete against other top Virginia teams as well as on the world stage.

A place for student robotics teams to develop competition robots and have real-world engineering experiences that will inspire a lifelong interest in science and math, the STEM Gym provides an indispensable service for the students of the Peninsula.

Triple Helix Robotics and our supporting nonprofit organization Intentional Innovation Foundation is now seeking a new home for the STEM Gym, and we ask for your help in identifying suitable locations.

STEM Gym location requirements

  • Situated on the Peninsula
  • 30×75 FT flat and level open space without columns or other interruptions
  • 12 FT minimum ceiling height, ideally higher
  • Accessible by any local youth STEM team who would like to use it for practice
  • Accessible at all hours (especially evenings and weekends) with little advance notice
  • Availability of 110VAC power & internet

Nice-to-haves, that would be an improvement over the STEM Gym’s current location, include:

  • Heat
  • Parking
  • Standard dock-height loading dock 

STEM Gym highlights
In addition to serving as the main practice space for Triple Helix Robotics, the STEM Gym provided a gathering and testing location for Newport News and Hampton City Schools competitive robotics teams on more than 27 occasions in calendar year 2019.

During summer 2019, the STEM Gym served as the home base for a unique collaboration between local teams who met weekly to prototype a mobile target robot for the Newport News Police Department shooting range.

The STEM Gym is itself collaborative project, too. A Community Knights GIFT Grant amplified Triple Helix’s existing funding and enabled the team to establish the facility. Newport News Shipbuilding generously donated the full-size FTC field border and the first set of FRC game elements. The NASA Knights, FRC team 122, contributed much of the lumber that was used to fashion full-scale wooden mockups of the FRC game elements for the past two seasons.

The STEM Gym also hosted an FLL Kick-off event, which provided local teams an opportunity to review the playing field, discuss game rules and robot design options, and speak to three local professionals about their areas of expertise relevant to the FLL research project.

Thank you,
Nate Laverdure
President, Intentional Innovation Foundation
Head coach, Triple Helix Robotics

Beyond Chairman’s: teaming up to build assistive tech

People with disabilities are often challenged to resume the activities of their everyday lives. Assistive technology (AT) helps people resume independent participation, however commercial devices are often expensive and unsuited for individual use. Occupational Therapists (OT) increase client access to AT, but may lack skills, material and equipment needed to make individualized solutions. In this presentation, we discuss the collaboration between our FIRST team and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Occupational Therapy program and present a model for establishing similarly unique and mutually advantageous partnerships to increase the skills of health practitioners, introduce real-world application opportunities to STEM students, and address community AT needs.

Video presentation

Genome Mu (2020) pre-match checklist

Triple Helix’s pit crew ensured that our 2020 robot, Genome Mu, was ready for each match by working through the following checklist.

  • Close pneumatic vent valve
  • Inspect IR Sensors
    • Firmly in place
    • Check operation of upper and lower sensors
  • Reset Climbing Mechanism
    • Rewind cord
    • Set tension of cord when stowed
  • Clean yellow “Lemon Zest”
    • Shooter wheels
    • IR Sensors
  • Check Tires
  • Every 3 matches
    • Inflation
    • Snap-rings
  • Check Belts
    • Intake
    • Magazine
  • Review Driver Station Log (if reported problems)
    • Compare commanded DS state with Robot State
    • Check connectivity to robot
    • Review current & voltage graphs
    • Look for reported errors
  • Charge pneumatic system
  • System function check (Intake, Magazine, Shooter (dump))
  • Log new battery and swap
  • Visually inspect connections to RoboRIO.
    • I2C (color sensor)
    • 5x DIO AUtoswitch, 1x Flashlight
  • Visually inspect wires and pneumatic tubing
    • Check interference with crank
  • Swap bumper
  • Determine alliance color and make appropriate selections on Autonomous switches

How lead mentor transitions happen

One of the most critical existential risks for sustainable-minded teams (and the biggest single reason that teams “retire”) is the loss of their champion– the 1 or 2 key lead individuals who hold the whole thing together. In this presentation, head coach Nate Laverdure discusses how the outgoing lead mentors, the incoming lead mentors, the rest of the team, and the team’s stakeholder community can plan and execute a successful leadership change.

Video presentation

Question 309

Triple Helix’s 2019 robot used vision systems to target the retroflectors which were attached to various scoring locations around the field. Throughout that season, we struggled to find a way to use these vision systems without triggering the objection of nearby field volunteers, who found them to be too bright.

In February 2020, Triple Helix mentors posed a question in the official Q&A seeking a definition of the word “brief” as it appeared in the blue box below rule R8:

The question was deleted from the Q&A system soon after it was posted.

Our question, the original text of which is lost, was a non sequitur. We proposed the fanciful idea that since the manual describes the January-March build season as “brief” in a completely separate discussion of Vendor qualifications, then it must be acceptable to illuminate a high-intensity light for no longer than 3 months at a time.

The following email conversation tells the story of that deleted question. We share this conversation here because we think it remains an informative look into the thought processes of both the game designers and the players.

Hello Team 2363!

My name is Jamee Luce, and I am the Team Advocate for FIRST Robotics Competition. I’m writing to you today in regards to Question 309, one of the questions your team submitted to the official Q&A system.

Writing the FIRST Robotics Competition Manual is one of the most important, but most difficult, things we do as the Game Design Team. We try to balance its readability with the necessity to be very specific. This gets very challenging for us at times. As such, there are times when we use the same words to mean very different things.

In your question, the word “brief” is used in this way. In one instance of “brief”, we wanted to provide guidance to teams about how to appropriately use their vision tracking system, and in another, we used “brief” to describe the length of the build season.

We find the comparison of these two situations to be inappropriate, since most users will understand that we didn’t mean the same time frame in both instances. As authors of the manual, we need to be able to express ourselves in different ways, depending on the situation. In some cases, it’s imperative that we are very specific (how long can a team be pinned), but in others, we don’t believe our community needs that kind of specifics (have your light on for a brief period of time).

We have deleted your question, and we ask that your team please think about your questions and how it reflects on our community before your team posts again. Please remember that we are all members of this community together. Most of us are coaches and mentors ourselves, so we really do think about the manual in its entirety before we publish.


Jamee Luce, Team Advocate, FIRST ® Robotics Competition

Jamee, I appreciate your note and understand the group’s decision to delete the question. Thank you for personally reaching out to explain things.

I’m sorry the question was received as being inappropriate and caused you to see our team as not having a respect for the hard work of the team of manual writers. We think the GDC is doing a stellar job crafting FRC rulesets that are both clear and internally consistent. We do appreciate how exceedingly hard this is to do! Triple Helix has a deep love of high-quality documentation. We can point to the fact that there have been only a very small number of significant rule changes made this year in the Team Updates as evidence that the 2020 rules are largely well done. We also especially appreciated the decision to pre-release some limited rules sections prior to the start of the season, as this gave us time during the offseason to ponder over the implications of the 2020 bag day changes.

We are dedicated members of this community and are committed to the program’s effectiveness, especially in our local area. When we ask questions about the program, it comes from a place of wanting the program to be even better. When it comes to the particular issue we asked about in Q309, please understand that:

  1. Our team has a history with the limitations posed by the current manual language, at least as interpreted by the LRIs at our events:
  2. We find that the potential for harm comes from a multiplication of two factors: intensity * exposure. As we do not currently have a method of controlling the light intensity, our strategy for mitigating risk relies primarily on reducing the 2nd factor in this equation, exposure. Ideally we can reduce exposure across both the space and time axes, by both (1) pointing targeting lights away from the eyes of field bystanders and (2) only lighting up the targeting lights while targeting the retroreflective vision target.
  3. Although this mitigation strategy was successful in 2019, we are concerned that it will not be enough in 2020, given that:
    a. The goal is located above the opposing alliance’s driver station, putting the opposing alliance directly in the field of view of targeting lights. This takes away our ability to mitigate exposure on the space axis, leaving the time axis as our sole focus.
    b. It is reasonable for an alliance to be attempting shots on goal throughout most of the match.
    c. Even if not attempting shots on goal, it is reasonable to use lights and computer vision to employ the retroreflective target as one element of a field-relative positioning system throughout the entire match.
  4. We only sought GDC feedback after engaging with our community to the best of our ability. The origins of Q309 were in a discussion with Kevin Genson, the Senior LRI for FIRST Chesapeake, who wrote yesterday in a space for FIRST Chesapeake mentors:
    Hey everyone, just a reminder that the output of the Limelight cameras is very bright and can potentially run afoul of R8. On a recent LRI call there were a few examples of teams using the Limelight at full power and running it constantly during the entire length of the match. Please do not do this, as the moment someone complains about the brightness inspectors will be obligated to examine the light and may require mitigation. The best approach is to control the light via software. Ideally the light should only be used when targeting is happening; when the robot is facing the goal and you’re in the process of seeking the reflective strips. The Limelight software includes a lot of options and flexibility.
  5. Even if Q309 had been answered, we think it is unlikely this issue would be completely resolved, and we have a number of remaining questions about how brightness of lights will be managed in the 2020 season. For example:
    a. How can we help inspectors & field volunteers distinguish low-intensity lights from high-intensity lights on our robot?
    b. Are high-intensity lights legal if they are used (however briefly) for the purpose of locating the robot in 2D space instead of aiming a shot on goal?

In the future, how can we seek answers to these questions in a way that will demonstrate both (1) our respect for the large community of staff, volunteers, and players who make FRC work in a way that provides stellar experiences for our students and (2) our desire to seek improvements to relatively narrow aspects of the program that we believe could be improved to create even better experiences for our students?

Maintaining the important core mindset that we are all in this community together, would you agree with the idea that “the moment someone complains about the brightness inspectors will be obligated to examine the light and may require mitigation”? Do all types of complaints carry equal weight? If so, do you think teams using bright targeting lights are at risk of drawing any bad-faith complaints from opponent teams who would like to see these lights be shut off, but do not have a safety concern?

Are there ways to improve the safety of our robot lighting that you recommend we should consider?

Thank you and have a good weekend,
Nate Laverdure
cc: Triple Helix mentors

Hi Nate and Team 2363.

Thank you for your thoughtful response. It is really helpful to understand that your question comes from a place of genuine question.

I will share this with our Game Design Team and I will get back to you next week. We have our Team Update meetings on Mondays, so it will be after that.

If you have any other questions or concerns before then (or about anything else), please don’t hesitate to reach out.


Hi Nate.

I just wanted to follow up again on this email. With the suspension of the season, we will be reviewing the questions and suggestions below for future manuals.

I hope you and your team are doing okay in this very challenging time.

If you have any other questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to reach out.