Legos and robotics: A new look at the Robotics Lab

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A Lego robot

The new robotics lab on the first floor of Meshel Hall was set up during the spring 2014 semester. The lab, which consists of desktop computers that are equipped with various types of software, will allow students to program Lego and Arduino robots.

The Lego robots are robots that are built out of Legos, making it easy to perform needed changes. With the Lego robots, the purpose is to physically build the robot structure around the processor. Arduino robots consist of a set of micro controllers and robotic system processors that have capabilities to run sensors and motors on a small circuit board.

Dr. Robert Kramer, an associate professor of computer science, said that a good thing about the robotics lab is that it teaches students how to program “in the small.”

“When we write programs, we’re used to getting power systems at our disposal with lots of memory and lots of disk space, and in this environment — this robotic environment — you don’t have any of that,” Dr. Kramer said.

To put into perspective just how small the memory in the Arduino robots are, a standard smartphone with 64 GB of memory in it has 252,000 times more memory than an Arduino robot.

“The Arduino for example has very, very limited memory, so you have to be very careful about every byte that you use and make sure we’re not wasting anything. You have the same problem with any kind of embedded system,” Kramer said. “For example the rovers that we send off into space, either to Mars or in deep-space exploration like the voyagers, the computers there are limited in space and power, and the ones that are exploring the outer planets, their power source is very small and limited so you can’t use these large computers that suck up all this energy.”

One of the robots in the lab was an Arduino robot that Kramer said functioned as a sonar sensor. The robot was able to send a high-pitched ping — so high that it’s not audible to the human ear—that would bounce off an object, and the time that it takes the ping to reach the robot again is displayed on a small LCD screen on the back of the robot. Once the time is determined, you can figure out how far away an object is.

“My goal with using robotics is as an outreach mechanism. Kids love this,” Dr. Kramer said. “These are good ways to teach basic programming because the robot is a slower computer and it has a physical component. You can actually see what your program is doing and you can see where your program is messing up. You can also learn about the various aspect of programming. You can see the robot and the decision it makes by what it does.”