December 7, 2009
Larry Markley (left) and David Simpson programmed their robot to detect a radioactive substance.
WOOSTER, Ohio - Students in Don Jacobs' electronics class (Physics 220) discovered recently that robots can sometimes have a mind of their own. The mix of 10 sophomores, juniors and seniors in the class spent three weeks pushing, pulling, prodding, and sometimes pleading with their life-like creations to carry out an assigned task. Last Wednesday, the robots had a chance to "show off" their newfound skills for an audience of students, faculty, and staff in Taylor Hall.
The primary objective was to take a primitive computer that thinks in binary, true-or-false, black-or-white fashion, and help it to sense the gray world around it. The students took a sensing device and connected it to a microprocessor (computer) using an electronic circuit so it could respond to a particular stimulus. They used Lego Mindstorms NXT robot kits and the LabVIEW
programming language - the industry standard for interfacing analog and digital signals and using computers for controlling experiments.
Jacobs divided the class into four groups. Each group chose what it wanted the robot to sense and then figured out how to electronically interface to the mini-computers or "bricks" in the Mindstorms kit. "I encouraged the students to be creative and innovative in their design of a new sensor for the robot," said Jacobs. "After determining what they wanted their robot to sense, they had to find devices that would detect it. Then, they had to devise a way to get the information into the robot, implement their designs, and develop the software to access their sensor."
The first group, which consisted of Alison Huff, Margaret Raabe, and Blake Sword, programmed their robot to read a compass. By using a light sensor that could distinguish between light and dark surfaces, the students "instructed" the robot to turn 90 degrees to the east when the sensor identified the white (southern) portion of the needle. The group successfully achieved its objective, but not without several corrective measures, including the removal of the compass's glass face because of its proclivity to reflect light, which prevented the sensor from getting a true read on the compass needle.
The second group - a two-man team with Patrick Butler and Jason Palevsky - also had success with "Boris the Fisherman," a robot who could determine whether an artificial fish was a "keeper" or a "throw back" based on weight. The robot would lift the object, determine its mass, and then rotate to the pile in which it should be placed.
The third group, which featured Eric Enoch, Alex Sullivan, and Alex Saines, attempted to inform their robot how to adjust to differences in terrain using an accelerometer. The goal was to maintain a level of balance as the robot traversed different terrain. Unfortunately, the trio could not get their robot to cooperate because of problems in the transmission of signals from the accelerometer to the microprocessor.
The fourth group, which paired David Simpson and Larry Markley, facilitated communication between a Geiger counter and the processor so that the robot could detect the presence of radioactivity in a substance and move in that direction. The two had the most challenging set of electronics, according to Jacobs, but after several setbacks, they were able to rebuild the circuits the night before the presentation so that the robot could recognize and respond to
the radioactive stimulus.
In the end, students not only learned about electronic circuits, but they were also able to sharpen their critical-thinking and problem-solving skills while gaining valuable experience in group-work settings. They also came to realize that robots, like students, don't always get it right the first time.
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