This year, Robotronica at the Queensland University of Technology’s (QUT’s) Gardens Point Campus revealed some of the latest developments and trends within the field of robotics. As one of the volunteers at this free event, I was given the chance to see a variety of demonstrations, workshops, games, and discussions that informed, inspired and surprised me in many ways.
Here are some of the programs in which I took a particular interest:
Robotic Arm demonstration
First off, RAWrobotics delivered a collaborative presentation on their new product: a robotic arm named Orion5. People were given the opportunity to see Orion5 robotic arms performing interesting tasks — such as sword fights — and gave them the chance to work with 3D simulation software that enabled them to control a real robotic arm.
Robot Play Zone
The kids and their families had fun exploring a variety of robots that were used in various education and STEM programs, such as Ozobot, Lego EV3 Drawing Robot, Bee-Bot, and so much more.
Ozobot was designed to recognise different colours and colour sequences comprised of up to four colours. Kids used their imagination to create fun and colourful paths and intersections — some on pieces of paper, and others on digital screens and surfaces — using iOS and Android applications to do so. For example, if you were to draw a red line, Ozobot would recognise the colour and react by turning itself red. If you were to draw a blue or a green line, the same thing would happen with the respective colours. If you were to draw these three colours in sequence, you could have Ozobot perform specific commands like slow down, speed up or spin.
The Lego EV3 Drawing Robot — just as the name suggests — was a drawing robot built with a Lego Mindstorms set. Kids would put different coloured pens and markers in the robot’s pen holder, and place sheets of paper or paper plates underneath the pen. The robot would then leave a trail of colour on the paper.
Bee-Bot was a robot that could be programmed to go from place to place. It allowed children to practise how to use directional commands in order to find treasure on a pirate map. Children were provided with a Bee-Bot Treasure Island mat; they then had to pick a spot on the map to hide the treasure. Students then programmed the Bee-Bots to move forwards, backwards, left and right when the arrow keys on their backs were pressed.
Orbiter, a realistic 3D space flight simulator game, enabled visitors to experience the magic of space flight. Visitors began their simulation at a special space centre, and journeyed to various international space stations. They were also given the chance to go on a tour around the solar system — more specifically, around high-resolution models of celestial bodies!
The story of Ben-E-Bot (“Benefitting the Elderly Bot“)
Ben-E-Bot is a chatbot designed to help the elderly in their daily life. This robot utilises simple technologies like Makey Makey boards and Littlebits blocks, and it can do things like hold everyday conversations with the elderly, or facilitate non-verbal interactions between the elderly and their long-distance family members.
For those of you who don’t know, Makey Makey boards are circuit boards that allow students to create circuits using objects that can conduct even the tiniest bit of electricity. The boards plug into a computer via a USB cable, and they essentially allow you to make interfaces (like a directional pad, for example) out of everyday objects. LittleBits are a collection of electronic building blocks that snap together using magnets. They allow you to create smart electronic devices without requiring you to solder, wire or program anything.
FotoEcho is a virtual mirror installed in a small room that captures the visitor’s face. This room is equipped with facial tracking technology, sound, and animation. The way it works is like this: someone on the display screen tells a story for the visitor — a story that usually carries messages of suffering, or overcoming hardship. Over the course of the narrative, the user’s face is captured and effectively “hijacked”, for — by the end — the face telling the story is that of the visitor’s! The point of FotoEcho is to have visitors experience empathy and connection by, quite literally, seeing from the narrator’s perspective.
Cartman — short for “Cartesian manipulator” is a robot that can pick and pack. It looks a little bit like a gantry crane, and contains a spinning gripper. It also comes equipped with weighing scales, and two cameras to detect different objects. This robot has six degrees of freedom, and both a claw and a suction gripper that enable it to complete tasks with more flexibility than any old off-the-shelf robot. Its many features make it ideal for working in, say, a warehouse — among other things!
Baxter is a factory worker arm robot that can be employed as a handy pair of working arms. What really distinguishes Baxter from other worker arm robots is that it’s safe to have around humans; it doesn’t need a cage or any other kind of safety measure to prevent it from harming anyone.
Just like how humans make use of nonverbal cues — particularly facial cues — in conversation, Baxter uses facial experiences to communicate what it intends to do: prior to moving either arm, it conveys the appropriate cues on its face (which is, in reality, a tablet). Its arms are fitted with sensors so that, when an arm detects resistance or obstruction mid-movement, said arm automatically retracts, so as to not harm the obstruction. Baxter can be programmed with code, or you can manually teach it movements to memorise.
Harvey is a harvesting robot — or, more specifically, a capsicum-picking robot — made by QUT. Through machine learning, it has been trained to identify and pick ripe capsicums. It began its journey by first studying images of capsicums, and then moving on to plastic capsicums, before finally progressing to real capsicums. It uses a suction cup to take hold of the ripe capsicum, and then a cutter piece on its arm to cut the stem. At Robotronica, there was a collaborative demonstration that gave children an understanding of how robot arms can help us in the future with manual labour tasks, such as automated fruit harvesting and warehouse packing.
NAO and Pepper
Visitors had the chance to interact with QUT’s NAO Robot, and SoftBank Robotics’ Pepper. Pepper is a humanoid robot based on NAO, and the world’s first individual humanoid robot that can recognize emotions. Pepper comes equipped with computer vision and complex sensors. Its upper body moves on wheels, allowing it to move faster and smoother than its older sibling, and it comes equipped with a tablet on its chest, enabling greater interactions between Pepper and, say, a user.
Robogals — an organisation that is advocating for a greater presence of women within the STEM field — ran a hands-on workshop. In it, students used EV3 robots to program and complete a number of interesting challenges, like the robot sumo tournaments, and battles against other EV3 robots.
QUT STEM workshop
The QUT STEM workshop introduced students to the basics principles of programming by using a driverless Arduino car around a track. For those of you who haven’t heard of it before, an Arduino is a circuit board that comes equipped with microcontrollers. They are a great way of teaching students the basics of electrical engineering and programming, and probably one of the best choices you can make as far as equipment goes if you’re keen on getting into electrical or robotic projects!
Super Box World
Super Box World proved to be a great opportunity for children and their families to tap into their their creativity. It allowed them to build their own robots out of cardboard. Coupled with custom motorised parts, children and families were able to make interesting robots that could make simple electromechanical movement — we’re talking wobbling, rolling and walking cardboard robots!
Throughout that day, visitors were served and entertained by a robot named Mr. Partybot. He is a simple, remote-controlled trolley with a plastic shield, and he spent the day greeting visitors and stirring up excitement amongst the students. He gave children a vision of the future in which robots might socialise with humans and be part of our society.
Not only is Robotronica a great day out, it’s a fantastic chance to learn about robots and all the incredible things that they can do. The event runs once every two years, so if you’re interested, the next one will be running in 2019.
If you’re impatient to get a glimpse at some fantastic robots and what they’re all about, join us on our free holiday tour of the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision!
By Elnaz Karimpour