NERC 2014 – II: Modules, Mini and Mayhem

“Module Aya Hai Tu Ye Jana Hai
Is NERC Ne Bara Nachaana Hai”

I read this scarlet piece of paper off the soft board; somebody has neatly poured his heart about NERC on it. I look around the arena and it reeks of activity. One semester, three modules and a mini to go through; this is one roller-coaster ride.

 

I remember the first module. You never forget your firsts.

It was a late evening in March. My team and I had covered all the three paths: A, B and C. Many of the teams had already submitted their module. Some delayed it to tomorrow. The arena was still filled with people. Some played bluff in the corner, invictus from submitting a great module. Some just hung around to complete their seasons. Some showed up only to take a run. And some never showed up. We submitted ours round seven pm with the robot misbehaving and getting stuck like it was debuting in the arena for the very first time. It sucked.

 

Sometimes you hate it, the very sight of the arena that is so merciless. But all that life going on, all the hustling and the bustling, all the falling down and getting up again, all the lessons it teaches through all those bruises it gives you, you forgive and open up to it again.
This cosmopolitan place: Numerous tastes in food and clothing, different approaches to program a robot on the same path run by 12 different teams, at least five or more various cable wires successfully tangling humans, a couple of mighty speakers in the corner with a whacky playlist, a smoke-joint corner which – thank goodness – was wiped out later on. Then there’s a robot bowling all the pins, the chiming of battery chargers indicating that the battery’s good and ready to rock, food coming in, people going out; the awkward outbursts of a cheesy Bollywood song in-between irregular intervals and the usual dialogue containing:

“Screw driver hai?”

“Tape hai?”

“BJT hoga?”

“Kya scene hai?”

“Chal raha hai?”

“Ball hai?”

Coupled with the dialogue, the crackle of laughter – and howling, in case of a blackout – is the musical score provided by the occasional loud thud of a robot hitting the arena’s wall, the robot then, spinning out of control as the impact would half-the-time result in detaching the encoder’s wire, a robot hitting a certain somebody who’s standing in the arena and catching him off-guard, alright.

 

A guy from degree 35 called our robot “Dracula”. There are two categories of robots in NERC: the indigenous and the modular categories. The summary is that our robots are bigger, harder and nastier. Theirs are made of Lego kit: politer. So if a Lego robot happens to come in the path of our robot, it would crush it to minced meat. Or any of the robots owned by degree 33, in that case.
We were pretty hard as steel.

 

March rolled into April. In between projects and the monthly one hour tests, we managed another module, like the rest of our batch. They put the signals in the arena. The arena was smug. It flashed lights of green and blue in between regular intervals.
The place was swarming with degree 35 – no disrespect guys but it’s every little bit true; I wish Dracula had hit one of you to lessen the camping you did INSIDE the arena – in addition to their gentler robots, they were also slower.

So you get the picture right?

I mean authorities are on our throats to score 110 out of 100, the place is always booked by baby robots and when we do get the time for a run, staff comes barging in on our faces that he has “to close the arena” and that he has to “close the arena”. I am telling you, he repeated it with effortless ease and without the slightest compassion for our work. But then again, why should he? Because he, has to close the arena.

Oh, I forgot to mention, there would be the attendance. Apparently, that happened to be the exiting part of the day. The staff would come in, thrust the attendance sheet in our day-dreaming faces and we would sign it and hand it back. See? Exciting. Only it would happen with hourly time-checks.

 

We finally land ourselves into mid of May. We made it through three modules, two OHTs, i-lost-count-of projects and a lot of back-breaking. Studies? My team and I agreed to give it all up for this. And we did. Give everything up. Nearly.
I mean we would still sleep, eat and attend classes, and pretend we’re listening when the truth is we would be in the arena even when we weren’t.

The arena becomes an undeniable part of you. I am not sure if my batch mates would agree with me but for those who spent more than half of their semester inside this hall would beg to differ. I would miss this place when I would be away; when I would not be working. Yeah, I was in knee-deep beep of NERC.

 

It is Wednesday: 14th of May, a day before Mini NERC. It’s everything NERC, just a little less glamour, crowd and no auditorium. I pull an all-nighter with my team in the arena, and the rest of the 33 batch.
It was a long, long night. I remember just slowing down to a halt while my team mate, Ghazanfer would take his hundredth run of the day with the robot, come back to the table, fix something in the code, burn it and go back. The cycle would repeat and I would wonder if any of this was real. Because when the night is old, you kind of lose it; doing the same thing over and over again and expecting it to do something different. However there are times when you have the exact same code and the robot’s doing something different every time or a couple of times. But that is enough to kill the hope in you or drive you up the wall. But that’s not like my team, you see. They don’t give in. That’s what gets one going through it all. That’s what got us through.

The arena is filled with campers, wrappers and half-eaten food. Some sleep like logs and some are asleep with eyes wide open. What bemuses me is those people seem to sleep the heaviest who do not affiliate themselves with the robot or the pressure of it all.
From the start of the modules to the very end of NERC, I wasn’t able to sleep like that. The arena would haunt my mind like this: the robot would align itself to the wall; I will be trying to fix the wall tracking; I would be going for a toss for the blue arena etc., etc. But then, it didn’t stop even after NERC.

Dawn breaks. I try to go outside the department and find out we are locked inside without a way out. I shrug and come back. The morning is taken by the usual surprise that despite having a freaking Mini NERC at 9.30am, we have a class to catch at 8.00am. I think we all shared some common, silent swearing in that moment. It was powerful.

We reach the arena by 9.00. It is slippery, glossy and cleaned up. And that is bad news because the path the robot was covering like a king last night is moving through the same path like a drunken man.
One requires utmost precision in these things. Your robot doesn’t understand the clean surface is the same surface you coded it for. Because there’s less friction or some other random error forcing the sensors to obtain a different observation and compute it to give an altogether different result.

We also manage to drop our robot on the floor, color-sensor-area face down. We burned a new code and forgot it was turned on. It ran off the stool we put it on. It was crazy.

Half an hour later, the arena is ready. The judges sit sober, on the left. The chief guests and all that jazz on the right. We are somewhere in the middle of the crowd. The first team that goes is Jet Jaguars. One of my favorite teams. It’s made of a trio. The perfect trio, I’d say.

Dr. Faraz lists the basic rules and DO-NOTs and it begins.

Jet Jaguar bowls all the pins on the first ball. It’s a strike, says HOD. But their robot threw in the second ball too, defying the rule of a strike. Though then, it was hushed up, and they scored a perfect mark making it to the top 8.
Gravity comes next. My friends do great. Though they don’t compare to my credit hours in the arena but God, they are helluva of a competition. They too, make it to the top 8.
We are next. Things slow down. My team mate Shahbaz takes the flag. Ghazanfer is to take the run. The rest of us just sit on the other end of the arena and watch. The robot runs smoothly in the Zone 1. It rolls into the slot but stops short of the ramp and the balls don’t bowl the damn pins. We take a retry AFTER we exit the arena. And it’s a perfect run! But Dr.Faraz announces that you don’t have valid retry AFTER you exit the arena. You’re stuck with the previous score. I hear sad drum beats in the distance, in my head.

It’s weird how you have no control over what is going to happen in the arena. You can fix it a hundred times, you can make sure, twenty times all over and you can take more runs than my teammate and you can still not guarantee that there will be no misbehaving. That there will be no betrayal.

But this is a game and you have to play it. Play it for the fun. Play it for yourself. Play it for your team. Not just about winning. Not just about proving to people or anyone.
We had it. We have it. We saw it run through the arena times so many during practice. There is nothing to prove to anyone. There has to be nothing that we didn’t do for it. The heart breaks all the same and it vanquishes all the team spirit you had pumped up in yourself before the day began. The things you told yourself and the made-believe starts to dissipate into wonder and questions beginning with why.

We make to the top 8. But we are knocked out in the top 8’s head-to-head matches. We were up against 7UP. Their robot had admirable precision; it always hit the pins. They had a double barrel mechanism. No ball was ejected right from the exact center because the two barrels were positioned slightly offbeat the central line of the robot’s top. It was two hopes at once. I thought it was beautiful.

As the crowd-cheering deafened all other sounds, I remember us exchange congratulatory remarks of “good job” and “great work” with the winning team. We were done for the day. After that, I felt everything blur.
I didn’t care about the other matches; I didn’t want to see who knocked who next. I just wanted to go home and sleep this entire episode away.

There’s this image that I cannot shake out of my mind because I remember, I remember precisely seeing my team standing with the crowd and cheering on the other contenders. I also remember Team Jet Jaguars standing side by the side with our batch mates and putting up a brave face even after they ran out of time on their second run because their previous run was held invalid as their robot exited a Zone 2’s path whose signal was a scarlet red.
I shake my head because I had neither that spirit nor that courage. Though we had hit bottom, my team chose not to fall while I did. Amidst loud shouts of

“BUCK UP! BUCK UP!”

“ABHI BUHAT TIME HAI!”

“YE TERA HE HAI!”

“ARAM SE! JO HAJAYE GA!”

I pick my bag up and leave the arena.