TI DSP Speedy33
In 2004, Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX, had just become the new host for the Texas BEST Regional Championship. The SMU Engineering School and Dean of Engineering Dr. Geoffry Orsack were at the same time creating a new program called The Infinity Project (TIP), an engineering curriculum for high schools. Ted Mahler, BEST co-founder and Texas Instruments (TI) engineer, had great interest in such curriculum and wrote a section related to BEST Robotics. SMU’s TIP used a TI Digital Signal Processing (DSP) board from National Instruments called the NI Speedy33 as a programming platform for their curriculum. Ted (and others) recognized this as a possible option for adding programmability to BEST robots, something that had not existed in the previous 10 years of BEST.
Ted designed an appropriate interface module (daughter card) that would plug into the Speedy33 and provide the interfaces necessary to control a BEST robot, including motor controllers and RC receiver (using the existing tether system components like robot box, receiver box and tether box). Ted tested his prototype and in 2006, BEST introduced the first software programmable controller for BEST Robots, allowing a handful of teams from a few Texas hubs an opportunity to test out the new system.
The BEST BRAIN
Along the same time, Dr. Richard Gale at Texas Tech University (then hub director for the West Texas BEST hub, run by the university), was teaching his university students using another TI programmable product. This was the TI MSP430 microcontroller; a simpler microprocessor than the powerful DSP used in the Speedy33 board. Microcontrollers were becoming very popular in the DIY hobbyist world and used in many places throughout industry for simpler control operations, like in automobiles. Using his connection and knowledge of the BEST program, Dr. Gale gave his university EE students a project to design a custom board using the MSP430 microcontroller that would handle most of the control operations for a BEST robot. After the Speedy33 trial, Gale offered up the Texas Tech design as a possible alternative (cheaper) programming platform. The BEST kit committee studied the options and elected to move forward with the MSP430 design. BEST volunteers made a few design changes to the board, and began planning for production of what was dubbed the BEST B.R.A.I.N. (BEST Robotics Advanced Instruction Node). The BRAIN was prototyped and tested in 2007, and mass produced and used by all BEST teams beginning in the 2008 season. This was truly the first programmable control available on all BEST robots. It opened a new window of learning for students, software design and programming algorithms.
The BRAIN was a significant undertaking for BEST Robotics because it was a custom design. Although it was excellent in its capabilities because of the customization, it quickly became a huge effort to produce each year. BEST had graduated from assembling tether boxes in the garage, to manufacturing a more sophisticated electronics board on a quite large scale as the number of hubs and teams was continuing to climb. This was not something that BEST had intended to become, a manufacturer of hardware components. Not to mention the software development and testing required. But the benefits to students could not be denied and a technology advancement was overdue.
While presenting details of the BEST BRAIN design at a local conference in 2009, Terry Grimley (San Antonio BEST) was spotted by representatives from Mathworks who immediately recognized an opportunity. Mathworks was seeking to get its software into the high school education arena, they had just learned about BEST’s ability to reach thousands of students, and they knew that their software could already support the TI MSP430 microcontroller (the heart of the BEST BRAIN). This quickly led to an incredible partnership between BEST Robotics and Mathworks that is still very strong today.
VEX Robotics ARM Cortex
VEX Robotics was another company hosting “robotics” competitions and also developing robotics control systems for several years in support of such competitions. Their early controllers were based on RC controllers similar to the early BEST kit. However, in 2009-2010, VEX introduced a new programmable system based on an ARM Cortex microcontroller, called the VEX ARM Cortex. The system was plug-and-play, having all of the functionality needed for the BEST Robotics application, while using a new WiFi-based radio system and a playstation-style joystick. This was a commercially available system that implemented even more functionality than the BEST BRAIN. The BEST organization realized that producing the BEST BRAIN every year was not optimal for the program going foward and something that they really didn’t want to continue; BEST needed an off-the-shelf system and the VEX Cortex fit the bill. Requirements were discussed, BEST and VEX came to an agreement and the VEX Cortex control system became the control system used for all BEST Robots in 2010.