A giant leap of faith
For the first time in Collin College history, Collin Robotics Club students will participate in the national American Society for Engineering Education robotics competition. Students spent hours designing and crafting a robot that meets requirements, including using an Arduino microcontroller, and then devoted even more time to programming and strategic planning. In the end, all of their effort will culminate in one, giant leap of faith. With baited breath, they will push a button and see if their robot will accomplish the task: pick up 12 “Georgia peaches” and deliver them to a central location in a mere 60 seconds.
According to student Cory Mathews, the Collin robotics class and club offer students a variety of opportunities to enhance their robotics skills and both are open to those who do not have experience working with robots.
“With the Collin robotics class you go from nothing to learning to build and operate a robot. The club takes robotics to expanded platforms like Arduino, Raspberry Pi and Beagle Bone, which can all be used as microcontrollers. We are learning to program in different languages like Java,” Mathews said.
Mathews is pursuing a certificate in cyber security at Collin College and plans to transfer to The University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) and earn a degree in autonomous security. He is interested in artificial intelligence.
“When people think of drones (UAVs), they think military, but we think of civilian applications like aerial surveying. I want to work on security in communication to and from the UAV,” he said.
Mathews’ newest toy is a quad copter chassis which will fly to GPS locations he gives it. He is also building a home entertainment server with Raspberry Pi which will allow him to stream Netflix and will also store files he can access remotely. The new server will also function as a gaming system with open source video games.
“What’s cool about learning this is that you open the robot up and see what is going on under the hood. Instead of a robot from a store doing what it has been programmed to do, you can make the robot do whatever you want, and that is a big deal,” Mathews said.
Immediate applicability outside of the classroom
Peter Dyer, Collin Robotics Club president, is interested in sustainability. He plans to earn a degree in electrical engineering and focus on power and energy.“My favorite part of the robotics class is the hands-on experience. I enjoy seeing how things work. We read the pings of the ultrasound sensors on the robot. The microprocessor does the math, and we use that information to code the robot. You learn a lot as you go, such as the fact that the carpet on the wall can dampen the ping. Ultimately, we drive the robot using a blue tooth connection, and we directly control it in games of robot soccer,” he said.
Dyer believes that many future engineers may be afraid of the high-level math courses. He says he was intimidated, but he had people who believed in him, and now he is able to use the math.
“Before robotics class, if I wanted to design a project I designed it part by part. Now, I can think abstractly and design by how the robot sees. When I design one part, I have all the other parts in mind. Also, I know the equations and can calculate the values, so I don’t have to estimate or over engineer.”
One unique quality that students cherish is the fact that they are able to use their newfound knowledge to further their hobbies. Dyer is currently working on a home gardening project which will include automated watering via drip irrigation with sensors that monitor the temperature and soil moisture.
“The class and club projects are giving me the confidence to invest in myself and to automate my garden. From my phone, I will be able to turn on and off water from say, Atlanta, Georgia. I can get feedback on moisture content and know the plants are getting watered. This might even be a product that could be brought to market one day,” he said.
Students, the brains behind the machines
Shaun Federspiel is planning to major in electrical engineering and computer science and earn a master’s degree in robotics engineering. He hopes to bring autonomous robots to everyday life and offer people help with mundane and repetitious tasks and the opportunity to invest more time in education.
“People think you turn on the computer and magic happens, but someone sat down and programmed it. Most programs are C-based. Someone typed in a line of text which tells the computer what to do. They are starting to map the human brain, and we are close to creating smart systems that are autonomous. Programming code is a language. It is like learning French; it has its own syntax. You are creating the brain structure of the robot while you are programming,” he said.Robots are a concrete, fun way for students to express their ingenuity and put their skills to the test. One might even say they serve as a mechanical representation of art - albeit mobile, interactive works of art that perform cool tricks.
“We each take our experiences and the robot is a manifestation of what we know about physics and science, but it is something that operates in the real world. I enjoyed the class because we had a set curriculum and requirements, but it wasn’t step by step, you do it this way. By the end, everybody’s robots were different. The class allowed for creativity. There was never a set path for each person,” he said.
“Collin College let me observe my ideas at work. It allowed me to see that my ideas are possible - and probable,” Federspiel added.
For more information about Collin College robotics classes visit www.collin.edu/academics/programs/electronicengineering.html . For more information about the Collin Robotics Club, visit www.collin.edu/campuslife/collin_robotics_club.html .
Reprinted with permission by Allen Image