Thursday, December 13, 2012

Techonomy 2012: Where's my robot?

Here's a fascinating discussion about the current state of robotics and implications for the future, particularly in relation to manufacturing, and the economy, but also many other trends relating to robotics and technology. It's not a really suitable for students per se, but for robotics teachers, watching this is 37 minutes well spent.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Barbara Bratzel in Australia

Last week, robotics education guru Barbara Bratzel was in Australia to work with teachers in Sydney, Brisbane and... Hobart!! Barbara is famous for her books showing how to teach young children physics using LEGO robotics and Robolab (and now LabVIEW). Her latest book is "LabVIEW Lessons: Classroom Activities for Learning Using LabVIEW and LEGO Mindstorms" (

Here are some take home ideas from her keynote address, "Instructions not included".

I thought Barbara had some nice ideas for challenges...(well, lots really!)
  • Flywheel car - Design a flywheel car that goes as far as possible and/or runs as long as possible.
  • Build an animal that moves in a characteristic fashion and reacts to a stimulus.
  • Haunted House - drive to each of four rooms and then back to the front door.
  • Chain reaction machine - aka Rube Golberg machine
  • RoboArtist - Attributes/rubric… use one medium, uses a second medium, uses one technique, uses a second technique, stays on the paper,…
  • Action/reaction car - balloon powered vehicles.
  • Cool it fast - data logging - to pass the test, your device must increase the cooling by 25%. If you pass, you're done. Otherwise, you need to provide a sketch and analysis of the machine. The most successful increased cooling by 350%.
  • Meet and greet - Build a robot that responds to a pat, or hand shake, or wave. (e.g. by doing a happy dance, or firing mini fig heads at you!, or stabs you!!)
  • At a snail's pace - make a snail that moves as slowly as possible, take a photo, sketch the gear train, calculate how many times the motor needs to turn to make the wheels turn once.
  • Piano playing robot - finger linkages
  • Bridge building - teams have a budget, and each piece costs so much. Students can sell parts back, but at half price.
  • Music box - build a music box with a theme, with characters that move around
  • Gumball machine

Some of the topics, tip and tricks that Barbara discussed...
  • Why engineering? - Engineers use STEM to create solutions
  • Engineering design process
  • Open-ended projects - give students ownership, and a bunch of other benefits that I didn't get down in time...  )-:
  • Challenges to using open-ended projects - everyone is doing something different, materials can't always be anticipated, storage, classroom noisy and busy, projects always take longer than you'd think.
  • Strategies for success - have a clear set of rules, have a system for managing materials, allow time for tinkering, leave room for false starts and failures, build up to big projects from structure to unstructured, from simple to complex.
  • Ground rules - we will be doing projects, large and small, throughout the year. Sometimes your attempt will be a success, other times it will be failure. Failure is okay, what's not okay is making fun of other people's failure. You can make constructive criticism - eg. "your car isn't going straight" is not okay, but "it looks like you car isn't driving straight because the left wheel is rubbing against the motor is okay". No designs are private property - be flattered if someone else uses your ideas.
  • Students with prior experience can create more elaborate projects.
  • Students can put their own stamp on projects.
  • Swedish school collaboration
    • each class picks a song and sends it to the other class to create a dance for that song
    • ask trivia of each other
  • How do I start the year? - Give students an opportunity to play with the materials. e.g. ball holder that must have a hinged lid, build a bear chair. 
  • How do you teach programming? - e.g. Driver's license with a sequence of basic movement challenges, Drive for five, pirouette, lurch, etc. This would be the first of a series of tasks, with each sequence finishing with an open ended challenge - e.g. get out of the box.
  • Does everyone do the same project? - each team could do part of a bigger project e.g. hamburger maker, Rube Goldberg, chain reaction.
  • How do you assess these projects?
    • e.g. ramp climbing car - test your car… how steep a ramp can it climb? Recorded the angle in degrees…. describe the problems, changes you could make, etc. - assess the progress and systematic approach to problem solving
      • design sheet and sketches
      • rubrics - points allocated for various features e.g. gum ball
      • tests e.g. build a balance out of LEGO, string, and a set of matrix masses, can take as much time you like. When finished, they're given a set of 4 unknown masses and scored based on the number of masses they measure to within 0.5g.
    • Pitfalls - grading based on success and grading based on creativity are tricky. Instead, grade on documentation, systematic improvement, understanding of underlying concepts
    • All projects documented - photos and videos of everything - on a password protected website so parents can access from home
  • Do you still have time to teach traditional academic topics? Yes!
  • Qualitative and quantitative - paper cup telephone,
  • Avoid single winner competitions
    • Give options about which contest to enter e.g perfect pitcher - distance or accuracy?
    • Structure projects to that everyone can win - e.g. clean sweep - clear all the Lego in the box in 30 seconds.
  • How do you attract girls? - create a collaborative atmosphere, avoid competition, de-emphasise cars.
  • To clean a classroom quickly - Barbara stands at the door with a bucket, to leave the room you've got to put a piece from the floor into the bucket.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Duel Down Under - Day Three

What amazing success for our team at the Duel Down Under! This was Australia's, and indeed the southern hemisphere's, first official FRC event, and our team won the robot game!!

After fifteen games in the qualification matches over Friday and Saturday morning, our team was in second place coming into the finals. We turned down an alliance with the top seed team, instead choosing to pair with the 4th ranked team in an alliance. This was, without a doubt the riskiest option. It meant that instead of going directly to the finals, we had to first win the semi-finals in the best of three games. 

Our team’s alliance won the semi-finals in two games, and then also won the finals in two games in a nail biting finish.

The team’s success was a combination of their robot’s design and some very cunning strategizing with their alliance partners throughout the competition. As well as winning the “Robot Championship” for success in the robot game, the team won a “Quality” award for the robot’s simple and effective design, nicknamed the “Tassie Tower of Terror"...
This award recognises exceptional design and implementation of mechanical, electrical and/or software systems. The winning team's robot was reliable and successful throughout the competition and consistently stands out as an example of engineering excellence. Here's what the judges had to say about the winning team, "this team's robot is an FRC team's dream, with its unique design and robust construction, it has proven consistently impressive on field. It has been described as simplicity done right and is modular enough to be carried on a plane from way down under the land down under." Congratulations Team 7777 Devil Robotics
Looking back, my goals for the project were to start a team, build a basic robot, and take it to Sydney. These goals were well and truly achieved, and then some! We've begun with a relatively small team of mentors and students, but with what we've all learned through this experience, we're going to be in a great position to do something even bigger next year!

More photos here.

Thanks to all the wishes of support from family and friends throughout the event. Although we would've loved to have more of the team present it was great to know that you could at least check in to the livestream from time to time to see what was happening.

Huge thanks to the Heimlichs, Team 3132, and everyone else who helped to put on such a wonderful event and for giving us such a great opportunity to work together on this "hard fun" project!!

Friday, June 29, 2012

Duel Down Under - Day Two

Today was another awesome day at the Duel Down Under! What made it especially cool was knowing that so many of our extended team were following along with the live stream.

Our top priority this morning was to set up and test the autonomous section of our program, but unfortunately we didn't have time to test our robot on the competition field prior our first game.... instead we got it working in a courtyard outside, but through a combination of good judgement and chance managed to come up with a routine that was indeed capable of shooting goals. In fact, Devil Robotics scored the first baskets of the day!

It was awesome to see other team's robots improve throughout the day, and one of the highlights was seeing an alliance of teams 3132 and 5152 succeed in balancing both robots on their bridge.

One of the main problems we had was with the tube sliding down, but this was solved with a couple of well placed screws. Then after a particularly sluggish performance in the eighth game, we discovered the importance switching to a fresh battery every so often!

There were some great workshops on today, but it was clear that we needed all four students on the field whenever we were competing, so unfortunately none of them were able to attend any. Next time... more students!! Anyway, I was able to get along to the Autodesk and National Instruments workshops and found both of these very instructive and will definitely be able to pass on much of what I learned.

Tomorrow the live stream will be running again with more qualification matches from 9:30 to 11:00am, final matches between 12:30 to 2:00pm, and the closing ceremony at 2:00pm.

What I learned from our visit to Google....

Last night, to finish day one of the Duel Down Under, all teams were invited to Google's Sydney office where Google Maps and lots of other cool stuff has been developed.

After a presentation that included a Q&A with one of their software engineers, we were divided into groups and taken on tours around their offices. On the way I learned that....
  • Google is just as awesome at marketing as they are at making cool stuff. They understand that the way to a teenager's heart is through giving them free stuff, including food!
  • The software engineers joke that employees at Google can be divided into two main groups: software engineers and everybody else. (But I don't think they're joking...).
  • The Google offices look like a fun place to work... the walls are pretty colours, there are nice meeting rooms everywhere, and lots of neat places to enjoy the views. There's also a tyre swing in the foyer, scooters for getting to their other set of offices 100m down the road, and kitchens with snacks you can help yourself to whenever you like (including visitors apparently).
  • When employees need computer hardware, they can just go and get it! The idea is that they would rather their employees just have what they need so that they can get on with their work... what an obvious, but rarely enacted, idea!
  • Google developers use Mac OS X more than Windows. It's not uncommon to have a team where there's only one Windows computer - and that's so that they can test Internet Explorer.
  • Although they do most of their coding in Java, they don't employ people for their knowledge of a particular programming language. They're much more interested things like a demonstrated commitment to open source projects.
  • Our guide was asked what subjects were most relevant for someone wanting to become a software engineer. He was fairly dismissive of most of the currently available computer science courses and instead stressed the importance of mathematics. He said that if you're not enjoying mathematics, then maybe you've got a bad teacher (!), and emphasised that learning how to solve problems is more important that learning facts. Sounds familiar!!  (-:

Devil Robotics at the Duel Down Under!! (Day One)

I can't believe how much has happened since the last post where I speculated about the possibility of starting Tasmania's first FRC team... I guess the main thing that's happened is that we did it! We started a team called Devil Robotics and got ourselves to Australia's (and the Southern Hemisphere's for that matter) first FRC event, the Duel Down Under in Sydney, June 28-30.

When we arrived that the venue at about 9:15am this morning, we found that we were the last to arrive. To get our robot here, we had figured the best option was to pull it apart and pack the sections into different boxes that we'd be able to get onto a plane. As a result, we carried our robot bits into a room full of teams busily working on what looked like some darn fine - and clearly fully assembled - robots!

Trying not to feel too intimidated, we set to work re-assembling our robot in time for the first practice matches at around noon. As we worked, lots of local students and mentors offered to help. They genuinely wanted to help us, but I guess it must've looked like we were going to need some serious help if our robot was going to have any chance of being ready in time.

When we brought it out onto the competition area (at about 11:59am!), I was quite surprised to discover that some teams were less ready than us, and that we were actually the third team (out of the seven at the event) ready for a practise game. But that didn't surprise me nearly as much as what happened next.... Our robot played a practise game against two other robots - and was the first and only robot to score any points in that round!!! Unfortunately there was a problem with the drive system. One side of the robot didn't move - which turned out to be simply that a wire that had come loose in transport to the field. Even so, we were off to a great start.

In the next practise game, with the drive system working properly, not only was our robot able to score points, but it was incredibly agile, and was even able to get over the bridge - something that we hadn't been able to test before the practise match.
After the practises, we worked on fixing a couple of elements of the robots - such as how to prevent balls from becoming accidentally stuck within the robot (see the photo) and the placement of the circuit breaker.

Over the course of the day, team members attended workshops on topics such as...
  • Nerd conventions (Going to your first regional and the rookie all-star submission)
  • Chocolates, cookies and lightbulbs (Sponsorship and sustainability)
  • Google apps for your team
 In the evening, we all went to Google's Sydney office for a most inspirational tour. Great stuff!

Tomorrow we'll finish programming the autonomous mode to take advantage of the bonus points that are available during the first 15 seconds and do a little more testing.

If you happen to be reading this before the event has finished, you can watch it live at...

On Friday morning, we're scheduled to compete at 10:00, 10:30, 10:45, 11:15, 11:45. In the afternoon, we're scheduled for 1:45, 2:15, 2:30, 3:00, 3:30.

Our robot is #7777, but your safest best is to look for the big black tube!


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

FIRST Robotics Competition in Tasmania?

The FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) is competition that runs from January each year (, and is getting started in Australia. Until now, there has been only one FRC team from Australia, Team 3132 aka The Thunder Down Under ( Last December I had the opportunity to meet members of this team at Macquarie University in Sydney and was tremendously impressed by their commitment and enthusiasm.

Is there interest in putting together a Tasmanian FRC team?

To make this happen we will need mentors (not just engineers, but a few of those would be pretty handy!!), sponsors, a venue to meet, and some keen high-school/college students. FRC teams can be huge - dozens of students and adult mentors! Check out this photo of Team 3132 for example... And there are heaps of different roles, from electrical and mechanical engineering to marketing, fund-raising and project management

Although it's too late to join the current FRC season, Macquarie University in Sydney is planning to host a "Duel Down Under" of its own using this year's game, "Rebound Rumble". The event will be held in Sydney on June 28-30th.

The rookie kits, which have the National Instruments cRIO microcontroller will not cost the usual US$6500. FIRST is cutting us a deal and they will be US$5000. Even so, we will need some serious sponsorship to cover the cost of the kit, let alone travel to attend the event in Sydney.

The benefits of participating in a project like this will be tremendous for all concerned, so I'm not so concerned about the money at this stage. In my experience, these sorts of things tend to sort themselves out.

What I want to know is do we have a critical mass of interest in getting something started here in Tasmania?

Let me know if you're interested!!