The atmosphere in Bellarmine’s new robotics lab is a little like Disney’s Magic Kingdom: loud, frenetic and full of people who are really happy.
The infectious joy of young people washes over you before you can get a good look at the astonishing gadgetry they are manipulating. There’s a humanoid robot, a mechanical arm, a 3-D printer, a flying drone, “sumo” robots, computers, tablets and glowing screens of all shapes and sizes. But what stand out are the grins.
The futuristic robotics lab, housed in the anachronistically incongruous Pasteur Hall, is the brainchild of physics professor and chair Akhtar Mahmood and instructor Stephen Brown. Their lab complements a semester-long robotics course, in which students learn to program robots using a programming language called Python, among others.
“We want to automate movements that as human beings we take for granted,” said Dr. Mahmood. “And then we want to program the robot to make it do something. The programming must be based on the laws of physics.” Although the Physics Department is home to the lab, the robots are available to any Bellarmine student who wants to conduct research with them.
The Bellarmine bots bring into sharp focus the explosive growth the robotics field will experience in the coming years. “Robotics is one of a few technologies that has the potential to have an impact that is as transformative as the Internet,” according to “A Roadmap for U.S. Robotics,” a report by a consortium of universities published last year. That report predicts that robotics will become as revolutionary and ubiquitous in two decades as computers are today. “The U.S. Department of Labor projects 60,000 job openings in just the next five years,” said Dr. Mahmood.
Indeed, robots have begun to tiptoe into many areas of everyday life. Besides the famous Roomba vacuum cleaner and similar lawn mowers and pool cleaners, robots are used extensively in manufacturing, mining, healthcare, defense and disaster recovery. NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover is a famous example. Robots also investigated the Fukushima and Deepwater Horizon disasters. Tiny robots are used in surgeries. There are robot service “dogs,” robot delivery systems, robot-arm assembly tools, “telerobotic” surgeons, robotic prostheses, and personal robots that help people cook, shave, shop and clean house.
The autonomous “driverless cars” that Google and other companies are working on are essentially robots. So are drones. And this robot rise is dovetailing with other up-and-coming technologies like the Cloud, the sharing economy and the “Internet of Things.”
In order for these robots to work alongside humans and other robots, they must be programmed. That’s what the robotics course and lab offer to Bellarmine students. Before students can take the robotics course, they must have taken two semesters of C++ and Java programming, as well as Analog Electronics and Logic Design. With those courses under their belts, the students are ready to … well, it’s hard to use a verb other than “play” with their robots.
In the robotics lab on a rainy afternoon in the spring, Jackson Sherman, a junior physics major from Florence, Ky., is demonstrating his programming skills with a robotic arm. He’s programmed the arm to drop a small block at a precise location based on Arc Length and the Law of Cosines and probably some other trigonometry notions that would make most mortals curl up in the fetal position.
“This all has to be coded, and it can be controlled with a tablet now,” said Dr. Mahmood. “Jackson has to program the cosines, the angles – apply a certain amount of force and pressure to grab it – and he should be able to pick it up from one location and put it down in another location. The code has to be exactly correct.”
With an enthusiastic laugh, Dr. Mahmood shows that he knows how to recruit students in this part of the country by making an analogy you might not expect to hear in a robotics lab: “It’s just like basketball. If we want it to play in the NBA, we practice. That’s how you learn. It’s exactly the same! Jackson has to find out what is optimal using the laws of physics and then make it work.”
Meanwhile, a few feet away, Michael Bowden, a senior physics major from Newark, Ohio, and Mr. Brown are battling SumoBots, small, tabletop robots on wheels with little cowcatchers in front. The mission: Push the other Sumobot out of the ring, sumo-style. The students built the SumoBots themselves to better understand how they work. “This is our starter stuff,” said Dr. Mahmood. “They have to build it to make it work. With the humanoid robot we can actually program intelligence into it.”
Just a few steps down the hall, Amber Byrum, a senior physics major from Maryville, Ohio, is eager to display what is arguably the most adorable demonstration of the day: the lab’s Nao robot.
Nao is a cute, humanoid robot that stands about two feet tall and comes prepackaged with cameras, sensors, a microphone and enough software to allow students to program it to sit, stand and interact with human friends like Ms. Byrum. To be sure, the robot’s human-like movements are still robotic enough that it never seems sentient, but the glimpse of the future that it demonstrates is slightly unsettling and a little moving. Perhaps because of Nao’s childlike size and voice, it is almost impossible to watch the little bot without giggling.
“He’s really interesting,” said Ms. Byrum. Placing him on the ground, she said, “He knows when he’s not vertical. So if you lay him down, he gets confused, like, ‘Why am I on the ground?’”
After a pause, Nao says, “Oh, I fell on the floor!” Then, “I was afraid I hurt myself!” Slowly, Nao stands back up. “He has a good sense of humor!” said Ms. Byrum.
She has programmed Nao to perform a dance that is an artful mix of tai chi and Bollywood, with just the right amount of calculus and C++ thrown in. While Nao dances, the musical accompaniment comes out of its built-in speakers. Ms. Byrum’s programming feat is an impressive mixture of the arts and sciences.
“This is all programed from scratch,” said Dr. Mahmood. “The amount of code that goes into this is tremendous. Something like this would not have been possible a few years ago. Next we’ll make him go Gangnam style!”
Just over Ms. Byrum’s shoulder, Mr. Brown and Mr. Bowden have begun tinkering on a new piece of equipment: the lab’s 3-D printer. Surprisingly low-tech looking, the printer, a plywood cube with a gut-full of wires and electronics, springs to life and begins “printing” an object of Mr. Bowden’s design.
Lying nearby are previous printouts: a small plastic skull, a whistle (that actually works) and, upon closer inspection, parts of the 3D printer itself. It’s hard to tell from the unassuming box with the whimsical and slightly self-deprecating name “Thing-O-Matic” by “MakerBot Industries” on its front panel that its technology has the capability to print almost anything of any shape or geometry, from shoes to cupcakes to human body parts.
But on this day they are printing a calibration box. “Think of it as a hot glue gun and it’s on three axes and you basically build up layers as you go,” explained Mr. Brown.
“We slice [the object being printed] into layers, like you do in Calculus II,” said Mr. Bowden. “You slice the area under a curve into layers and approximate. This program does the same thing except in 3D models. The skull is about 125 layers. It took about two hours to print because there’s a lot of complex work to do,” he said.
Mr. Brown then makes an observation that is perhaps obvious but slightly mind-bending: The students can use robots to make other robots. The 3D printer could print a drone, for example. “I wouldn’t print the propellers, because the accuracy is not there yet, but everything else on the drone is printable,” said Mr. Brown.
Another example: “They’ve begun using 3D printing for medicine applications as well, like prosthetics,” said Ms. Byrum. Mr. Bowden also pointed out how inexpensive the raw material is. “The reel we put on today cost $45 and it lasts a year,” he said.
Nowhere is the old adage “Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades” more evident than in the robotics lab. The programming must be precise or something will go awry. If the code isn’t exact, the dancing Nao will fall over, the robotic arm will drop its object or the drone will crash. And with robots making robots, it’s comforting that it’s happening at Bellarmine: When our robot overlords are being programmed, who better than students of the liberal arts and sciences to program them?
When asked if he’s worried that he’ll teach himself out of a job by coming up with a robot that can teach robotics, Dr. Mahmood laughs his uproarious laugh and says, “That’s the idea! Robots doing human activities!” And while he is clearly kidding, you get the sense that he will be happy so long as he is in the room.
Jim Welp ’81 | firstname.lastname@example.org