Here a robot, there a robot

Robots.jpgWhat they learn sets them up for any of the university engineering degrees, from mechanical to electrical to computer to software engineering.

This year’s competition (May 4th at University of Ottawa’s SITE building) should attract entrants from 10-15 schools.

By James Bowen
From SCAN's Print Edition

A stream of robotics talent is pooling near the Ottawa and Rideau rivers, trickling from high schools to colleges and universities, and wending its way to the private sector, all the while filling hobbyist forums along the way. For many, it begins in grades seven and eight when students learn the basics of robotics and enter their first extramural contest.
The IEEE Ottawa Robotics Competition, sponsored by the Ottawa chapter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, challenges kids to design and build an autonomous robot in just 10 weeks. Using a Lego Mindstorms standard robot kit, they must build a robot that can meet the objectives outlined by organizers. In the 2007 competition, entrants were required to find nine curling rocks scattered over a gaming surface and place them in their opponent’s “house,” consisting of three concentric circles similar to those on a curling sheet. The winner was the first team to complete the task.

This year’s competition (May 4th at University of Ottawa’s SITE building) should attract entrants from 10-15 schools. In order to get the participant’s creative juices flowing, each spring the university offers its Mini-Enrichment Course in Robotics for kids in grades seven and eight. The one-week, bilingual course includes lectures on robotic actuators and locomotion, as well as hands-on lab experience with programmable robot arms and mobile robots.

The course and competition are directed by uOttawa alum Dr. Rami Abielmona, the thread linking the university, the IEEE competition and local sensor networking company Larus Technologies Corp., where he serves as VP of research and engineering.

“Kids love to be able to go from imagination to robot creation in six hours at the workshops of the competition,” enthuses Dr. Abielmona. “Parents love the fact that what they learn sets them up for any of the university engineering degrees, from mechanical to electrical to computer to software engineering.” He notes that a number of the IEEE participants that have gone on to earn engineering degrees in university have cited the competition and enrichment courses as reasons for their choice of study.

Robotics has been described as the intelligent connection of perception to action. Actuators provide action, computers supply intelligence, and sensors provide perception. It is also the science of building robots and their component systems. Made from hardware, software, mechanical parts and electronics, autonomous robots, acting independently of humans, analyze sensory input to make decisions based on onboard, software-based logic. They have come a long way in recent years. Still, today’s robots are a far cry from Arnold Schwarzenneger’s unstoppable T-800 in the apocalyptic Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.

Ottawa high school students can get a glimpse of robotics technology through basic computer engineering classes in grade nine, before focusing on robotics-specific courses at the grade 11 and 12 levels. Richard Young teaches his students at Sir Wilfred Laurier High School to “imagine” and create robots. He has helped program a world of autonomous beings, with strange bug-like sensor antennas and stripped down bodies. From the fundamentals of robotics, such as ohms, sensors, binary code, to burning code onto microcomputers, Mr. Young’s class puts principles into action as they build their own autonomous machines using parts found in electronics or computer stores. This “cobbled-together” approach is common in classrooms around the capital. At Colonel By Secondary School, teacher Geoff McCulloch and his students power their creations with motors cannibalized from drills bought at the hardware store.

According to Mr. Young, “The students come for the projects and stay to understand what’s inside chips, how a logic gate works. They learn about things that they thought were outside their reach… They can understand their iPod or a spec sheet!” His students’ robots have to be able to complete deceptively simple tasks, such as following a black line on a white surface. Easy for humans; not so for robots with only a relatively small amount of code. “The students get to see knowledge of electronics, programming and so on come together with cool results,” says Mr. Young, adding that on field trips to local firm Neptec, an integrator of machine vision systems for space applications, his young charges see such results profitably applied in the private sector. He takes satisfaction in knowing that a number of his students have gone on to earn a degree in computer engineering. “Some of my former students report back to me that first year engineering at university is easy,” he says happily, knowing that his program has given them a leg up in realm of higher learning.

A veteran of robotics competitions, Richard Seniuk is a teacher at Glebe Collegiate Institute. His students have an impressive record of a dozen wins over the last 10 years, including Best Innovative Design and “Best Dressed” robot. While pleased with the accomplishments of his and other robotics programs in Ottawa schools, he laments that limited access to lab space and funding handicaps them beyond local competitions.

“Entering a competition in Toronto or the US can involve thousands of dollars, and this is compounded when the robotics students need to use machine shops at other institutions,” he says. Currently, Mr. Seniuk and his students must travel to uOttawa or Algonquin College to get the space and equipment they need to make and test their robots, limiting what they can accomplish during the school year. Mr. Seniuk aims to take his students to the FIRST Robotics Canada competition where 41 regional competitions run from February to April at the Ontario Science Center. FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is an international organization that holds robotics competitions for both elementary and high school students. The FIRST Robotics Competition challenges teams of students and their mentors to solve a common problem, such as stacking boxes, in a six-week timeframe using a standard kit of parts. Like Mr. Young, Mr. Seniuk has seen many of his students go on to university and college programs in engineering.

After high school, Ottawa-area students can enrol in Algonquin College’s two-year robotics program, or study under internationally renowned space robotics expert Alex Ellery, professor of engineering, Carleton University.

Emil Petriu, a professor of electrical engineering and research chair at uOttawa’s School of Information Technology and Engineering, has been teaching robotics for more than 20 years. His work has won grants from the Canadian Space Agency, which he has helped with robotic tasks such as docking the shuttle at the International Space Station. Since his first master’s grad ─ who completed his thesis in 1988 ─ went on to Sun Microsystems in California, a number of Professor Petriu’s students have found employment with prominent companies and organizations worldwide. Many have remained in the capital, taking jobs with local links such as the Department of National Defence, Communications Research Centre Neptec and Larus Technologies.

Professor Petriu’s current projects include using tactile optical sensors for underwater exploration. “Optical sensors have had their day in the sun,” he says. “Now it’s time for them to help robots ‘feel’ their way through the dark depths.” He is also using robots to monitor hazardous environments such as areas containing radioactive material.

Local robotics diehards meet at the Ottawa Robotics Enthusiasts Club. ORE is behind local events such as Robomagellan, a competition where robots, guided by GPS and onboard “vision” systems, traverse varied indoor and outdoor terrain while navigating obstacles and completing assigned tasks. Such tasks include finding and extinguishing a lit candle in a model home with four rooms, or following a winding black line on a flat surface.

Though robots bearing even a remote resemblance to Schwarzenneger’s T-800 are only a hazy dream, the “rise of the machines” is here, propelled on mechanical legs and guided by optical “eyes” designed by Ottawa students, teachers, engineers and hobbyists. It’s a good beginning. What’s needed now is more mentorship in our schools and sponsorship for competitions, if Ottawa’s robots and their builders are to see further and take the next step.

James Bowen, PhD, PMP, CMC is an Ottawa technology entrepreneur and adjunct professor at uOttawa’s Telfer School of Management.

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