Friday, October 29, 2010

Robotic Rodeo -- Day 2 -- Somebody taunted murphey

The day started out early--about 3 AM Pacific time. We headed straight to Fort Benning to set up for our demo in the chilly morning air, fortified by a breakfast of soggy, lukewarm egg muffins.

From that high point, the day rapidly went downhill. The radios, which had worked so beautifully the day before, gave up the ghost with a vengeful permanence. If I had known at that point that it was simply the first taste of what was to quickly come, I might have followed suit.

The demo was at 10:30, a couple hours away. At first we didn't panic, assuming that the radios could be resuscitated. As time ticked away and radios remained stubbornly silent, however, the Antenna Products people became more and more frantic. A team of heart surgeons racing to beat a rising flood wouldn't even have approached their intensity. We were working on issues of our own so we couldn't watch, but Davin kept us updated on their progress. It went something like this:

"They're checking the connections."
"They're checking the linux kernel."
"They're reinstalling linux."
"They're opening up the radios."
"They're checking the circuit boards."
"They're replacing the circuit boards."
"They're stomping on the radios."
"They're rebuilding the radios from scratch."

The Antenna Products people were under a lot of stress, and Davin finally decided to stay at our own booth after one too many over-the-shoulder suggestions got him threatened with a fist to the face (these were big Texas guys). I don't think the guy was joking, either. At one point, one of the Antenna Products guys came over and said that the boss had just fired two people back home.

Like I said, though, we were dealing with problems of our own. For some reason, an ugly bug had chosen that morning to rear its head in our code. I finally had to give up working on that because we had to attempt to implement our fall-back comms solution: off-the-shelf wireless Internet.

Since we hadn't worked with it hardly at all, and we were down to our last few minutes before the demo, that predictably didn't go well and we finally gave up on that as well. What we didn't realize until later was that most people were having communication issues, due in part to the sheer number of people in the same tent all trying to use the same frequencies.

Also, it didn't help that someone had brought a massively overpowered radio that was drowning everyone else out. That was our suspicion by that point (confirmed later) and Davin got the person-in-charge to make an announcement over the PA for everyone NOT doing a demo to turn off their radios, but of course the vendor didn't. Their comms worked great.

The time for our demo to start came and went with us still trying to get a robot working. We finally gave up on the comms and simply planted our robot at the front of the demo area. If nothing else, we could demonstrate how you could plug and unplug two different sensors and they would automagically work.

Except one didn't. As we discovered later, the actual cord for the sensor had gone bad. The cord. When was the last time you ever saw a cord go bad? That's right, never. It just doesn't happen. Davin glossed over the issue as best he could, but at the end of the day it was a totally disastrous demo. The one tiny saving grace was that most of our audience was just a busload of school kids who had been trucked out to look around, and they don't usually have fat, multi-million dollar contracts to give out.

The rest of the day was spent working over radios, robots, and sensor cords. By evening time, everything was coated with dust and we were all hungry and tired, but at least the radios were starting to work. Mostly due to everyone else going home and freeing up the airwaves. We finally packed up and followed suit. Davin had pushed off all the unofficial demos he had promised people to the next day, so it would be a late night. Hopefully, the next day would be better.

No comments: