“Wanna join Robocon?” Lee asked me through the phone as I was attending an art memorial of my calligraphy master. I had thought about it since Robocon is one the most recognised clubs in University Technology Malaysia (UTM).
A brief pause before making the decision. I reckoned that I had nothing to lose but a lot to learn from them. All that I heard from my friends was that entering Robocon will cause major burns to my liver as sleep was relative in their club. However, I viewed it from a different perspective as to garner as much knowledge possible from them, in technical terms and also in general terms.
“Yep, help me pay first. After I transfer to you.” I replied deftly as he was at the line footing the entrance fee to Robocon. “Remember to Whatsapp me your bank account.” We bade each other goodbye and resumed with what we were doing.
Robocon is one of the most established clubs in UTM. For more than 10 years, Robocon was and is the champion for the Malaysia Open Robotics Competition (I do not know the actual name so I made something up), and even the international version for the competition. This club is only meant for people who are willing to sacrifice everything and putting effort into building robots.
The first task that was given to every new participant of Robocon was to make a functional line-tracing vehicle (Autocar) that is able to pass an obstacle zone in automatic mode and compete with another Autocar in pushing a ball to a goal in manual mode.
Sounds easy. But, there was a time limit. Three weeks. Plus, there were tests on and off in our respective degree courses in that period of time.
Day one, I had to rush to the compulsory meeting set by Robocon. The first session was mainly about introduction to the components of a circuit. We were taught by Lok, he did not have any notes with him and he managed to name all the components needed with precision and without any hesitation. By far, I can admit that he is a better lecturer compared to the ones in the university.
After the introduction class, we were given 4 days to produce a schematic diagram of our motherboard, controller and sensor. The Robocon lab was opened from 4.30 p.m. to 4.30 a.m. on weekdays whereas on weekends it opened from 10 a.m. to 4.30 a.m. This is fucking absurd. I laughed to myself. What in the world had I brought upon myself?
During that four days, I pushed myself as hard as possible to comprehend the copious amount of information that was shoved into my head. I had little to no guidance as Robocon emphasized on heuristic learning, no spoon-feeding.
For someone like me who has little to no background on this, I was put into a very stressful and oppressed mental state. I literally had no clue or whatsoever for the first few days into Robocon, I was devastated. This year was rather different as there were more people who are talented and interested in robotics. That meant I was a small fish in a big pond.
Sleep was relative at that point of time, I threw away about 10 drafts of the schematic diagrams, only to realise my next was also faulty.
About a day before the submission, I only started to understand how the circuit worked and managed to produce a schematic diagram with 2 jumpers on it. However, this was only the first phase of many.
Let me break the whole Autocar building procedure,
i) Draw schematic diagrams for the engine, controller and sensor.
ii) Solder the components on the IC board.
iii) Build the body for the Autocar.
iv) Programming the line-tracing.
v) Test-run and fine-tune.
I managed to pull off something unimaginable by me, which was to complete a task that required one semester worth of knowledge to do within a week. After only the first phase, I was exhausted, physically and mentally. I was getting little sleep and even if I wanted to sleep, it was frustrating to do so as I knew I did not have the luxury of time to sleep.
In addition to the challenges, I stayed quite far from the Robocon lab, it was around a half an hour walk back from the lab. Distance also fared well as a worthy opponent during this Robocon experience.
On to the second phase, I had to sit still for almost 6 hours per session to solder the board. I was way behind schedule. I noticed everyone was ahead of me, and I asked around about the time taken to solder a board. To my disappointment, I took about twice or ever thrice the time they used.
About 18 hours were used to solder a 40 by 24 wide IC board.
I was soul-crushed. Eventually, I realised that I was not built for this. You might think that this snowflake, but remember I still need to go to my daily lectures and still manage to do the Autocar.
Even before the soldering works were completed, I had to move on to the next phase which was programming. To my surprise, they managed to summarise the gist of programming to me during a compulsory lesson which was around 2 hours. Another obstacle arose, I was using Mac and most of the programmes used were for Windows.
Enough. I can’t take it anymore.
I lasted for almost two weeks. That was my limit.
I had to call it quits as I was not able, my mind was starting to reject what I was doing.
If this were something that I was getting paid for- in cold hard cash- to do, I would bust my ass to do it. As for where do I really stand in the midst of all this, I had to say that I do not hate nor like doing Robotics. I know that Industrial Revolution 4.0 is right smack in our timeline, but I am not built for this. That’s why I chose Maths as my degree, not engineering.
“Since you have decided, whatever I say will not change your mind.” uttered Lua as I asked him out to talk about my plights. “But at least you get to speak what is on your mind.”
I did consult people to make me change my mind but to no avail.
Suffering is part and parcel of life, it helps us to grow. But, this kind of suffering is not the kind of suffering that I am proud of or have to courage to take on. I am ardent in solving equations rather than building a robot.
After weighing the cost and benefits given through Robocon, I think I should stop at where I left out. ‘Everything’ meant sleeping time, semester break time, and even Chinese New Year time. The club works throughout the year that is why they are accredited as the creme de la creme. Come to think of those sacrifices to be made, it was not worth it to me.
Nonetheless, I have learned many things. Amongst those are:
i) humans have no limits if they put their hearts into it.
ii) I can focus up to 12 hours per day consistently for a week, the most 16 hours in a day.
iii) how to learn something fast heuristically.
iv) some technical knowledge.
The most valuable lessons are those of what humans are capable of doing.
Thank you for the experience, Robocon. I am ready to apply the given attitudes for the rest of my life.