Category Archives: robotics

iLab opening soon at UH Manoa

  IMG_7017 What was once the headquarters for the Information Technology Services group on the University of Hawaii, Manoa campus, Building 37 is soon to become the iLab. Inspired by Stanford University's D.School, the iLab will be a hub for innovation and design thinking on campus. Back in July 2015, this video was produced to provide a virtual tour of what the iLab would look like. The iLab is still under construction so what you see here will change over the next few weeks. I was fortunate to get a quick tour of the facility this past week. When completed, there are plans to hold classes, build a maker space equipped with 3D printers and provide a space for interdisciplinary innovation. The intent is to also include commercial business collaborations to help solve real world problems. In conjunction with the iLab, a design thinking course is going through curriculum approval for the UH Manoa campus. Design thinking isn't something new to Hawaii. Back in 2011, local R&D company Oceanit spearheaded the adoption of design thinking concepts in Hawaii's Department of Education. This spread from the DOE to government departments, UH departments, commercial businesses and even the non-profit sector. This however is the first time an actual credited course in design thinking will be offered at UH. A tentative date of January 20, 2016 is the target for the grand opening of the iLab. The closer we get to the date, the more I am hearing people talk about it. We've scheduled an upcoming interview with the course developer and a professor from the College of Engineering to talk about the iLab and how it will be used. Tune into Bytemarks Cafe on Hawaii Public Radio on Dec 23rd to catch that conversation.  

SeaPerch: An Underwater Robotics Program

seaperch With all the robotics programs to choose from, SeaPerch fills a unique niche. First off, it is underwater. All the others like VEX, FIRST, BotBall and Micro Robotics are land based. The only other underwater robotics program is MATE ROV which is geared toward high school students. Which brings me to the second differentiator, SeaPerch is geared primarily to elementary and secondary school students. Going on its third year, SeaPerch Hawaii attracted 30 teams this year to compete at the statewide qualifying round at the Coast Guard Base on Sand Island. The teams had two challenges to maneuver, an obstacle course and a finesse course. In the obstacle course, the underwater vehicles needed to maneuver through 5 rings. For the finesse course, there were three tasks. The first goal was to push a lever, the second task was to then to pick up a rod and place it into a pipe and the third was to slide a colored ring from one side of a ladder rung to the other. Each challenge had a 3 minute time limit. Teams that make it through these qualifiers move on to the 2015 National SeaPerch Challenge to be held on May 29 - 30 at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth in Dartmouth, Massachusetts.
SeaPerch model designed for obstacle course
SeaPerch model designed for obstacle course
The SeaPerch kits are preconfigured but teams have the flexibility to add modified floatation devices in lieu of the supplied foam. I saw several vehicles using drink canisters. Each vehicle has three propeller motors controlled by an operator. I found it interesting how operators were reliant on spotters whose role was to watch the vehicle (from the surface) and relay directional instructions on which way to go. To do this they used their smartphones, not part of the SeaPerch kits. The Office of Naval Research is overall sponsor for SeaPerch. Community logistics and support provided by the Coast Guard, not to mention all the parents and teachers who also provide support and mentorship. The volunteer network to orchestrate the competition was quite impressive, from judges, announcers, data entry to spotters in the pool. A lot of work went into implementing this program. SeaPerch is a STEM feeder program that introduces students to underwater dynamics, electronics and marine engineering. As a launch point, SeaPerch students can continue onto MATE ROV or any of the other robotics programs and to perhaps on to a career in science or engineering. Additional Links:

On the way to the Moon with #MoonRIDERS

MoonRiders Moon RIDERS: Research Investigating Dust Expulsion Removal Systems is a unique collaboration that involves NASA, PISCES, Google Lunar XPrize, Dept of Education, Iolani High School and Kealakehe High School. It's rare to have such a diverse public private partnership involving a public and private school, and MoonRIDERS is being touted as a first for Hawaii. Both schools have an opportunity to build and operate an experiment on the surface of the moon. Interestingly, a major problem with extraterrestrial landings is dust. Eons of dust, layer upon layer of this fine as flour, rough as sandpaper particles, get kicked up during a landing and can cause havoc with equipment and flight suits. This became evident to NASA since our first lunar landings.
Electrodynamic Dust Shield
NASA researchers like Carlos Calle worked to refine a method to remove surface dust called Electrodynamic Dust Shield (EDS). Using a phase shifted alternating current the EDS moved the dust particles off the surface of glass. This dust shield is just one aspect of the mission student teams from Iolani and Kealakehe will test. The EDS unit needs to be mounted to the base of a lunar lander but in order to get an assessment of it's relative position an entire mockup of the lander needs to be fabricated. The Iolani team using their maker facility at Sullivan Center fabricated a quarter size mockup of the Astrobotic Lunar Rover called the Griffin. The Kealakehe team is working on an alternative rover designed by EarthRise Space Foundation. Both teams started at the beginning of this academic year (Sept 2014) and are now at the stage of an engineering field test in March 2015 on Mauna Kea at a PISCES test site. During the March field test the mockups will go through a series of tests to simulate a lunar landing. They teams will also have a chance to test the EDS and make recommendations on how to measure its performance. In addition to fabrication and testing the teams also engage in outreach as STEM ambassadors. Both the Iolani and Kealakehe teams have MoonRIDERS websites and social media sites including Twitter and Instagram. The Iolani team consist primarily of junior and senior level students but part of their mission is to introduce the project to lower school 3rd graders at Iolani and eventual take the show on the road to other schools. This outreach effort is important since MoonRIDERS will outlast some of the students currently involved as they graduate from school. The timeline for the launch date is late 2016. But even after the launch, the hope is there will be future payload projects that will involve Hawaii high school teams, a critical role for PISCES and NASA as the enabler. Rob Kelso, Executive Director of PISCES said, "For students to go into an interview for college or job and be able to say they were part of a flight experiment that today is sitting on the surface of the Moon. What a testimony to their hard work!" Now the goal is to get more Hawaii students into this STEM pipeline, to share in this game changing experience and to create high value 21st century skills. Additional Links:

4th Annual FIRST Robotic Competition

Excitement reigned at this weekend's 4th Annual FIRST Robotics Competition. This year 32 teams competed in a challenge involved arranging large plastic tubes on a rack. As you can see in the video, there was a short autonomous exercise, the logo sequence and a micro robot challenge in each of the heats. These heats go by fast and only last a couple of minutes. Teams compete in a best of series culminating on the Saturday's final. This year the alliance of teams that won the overall competition was McKinley, Kealakehe and Waialua High School. The competitions are not only a show of science and engineering. The event is peppered with performances, cheer leading, dancing and overall team spirit. There was even a first ever (at least as seen by me) performance of a live iPad2 GarageBand. There were 4 guys all plugged in playing music off their iPad2s.  The three day event is quite a production and getting a chance to witness the student and audience energy is well worth the visit to Stan Sheriff Center on the UH campus. This year's event was also streamed from the NASA Robotics site. You can also read more about the various robotics competitions coming up during the rest of the year in this robotics Special Feature. Here is a set of photos I shot on during the Friday, March 24th qualifying heats. Hope to see you at the next robotics competition.

6th Annual Hawaii FIRST LEGO League Championship

The 6th Annual Hawaii FIRST LEGO League Championships were held on Saturday, Dec 11, 2010 at the Neal S. Blaisdell Arena. The FIRST LEGO League (FLL) introduces younger students to real world engineering challenges by building LEGO based robots that complete tasks on a thematic playing surface. This year's theme was medical related with challenges simulating a rapid blood screening, artery stent, cardiac missions, brain missions, bionic eyes, etc. Teams must design, build, test and program an autonomous robot to accomplish the Challenge Mission on the playing field. The game is based on a point system and each team has three qualifying rounds. Each round is 2:30 minutes long. In the video students from Pauoa Elementary School program their robot to perform predefined tasks. Once activated the robot is autonomous, functioning without remote controls. Each team is allowed only two members at the playing field at a time although they can switch out by tagging one of their members. Aaron Dengler, science teacher at Punahou School told me that FLL is less about robotics and more about engineering and team work. Each of the robot kits include a controller, sensors, mechanics and power. Bringing it all together is an engineering task. In addition to the design, testing and performance, each team has to research the theme and do a presentation to a panel of judges. Months of planning and activities lead up to the FLL Championship. I was quite impressed with the enthusiasm each of these young teams demonstrated and felt reassured that this program is an excellent feeder into futures in science and technology.

Pan Pacific VEX Competition 2010

The 3rd Annual Pan-Pacific VEX Competition was held at the Hawaii Convention Center on Friday and Saturday, Dec. 3-4, 2010. 112 teams from across the U.S. including 12 from Mainland China competed in the event. This year’s game, Round Up, is played on a 12’x12’ square field. Two alliances – one “red” and one “blue” – composed of two teams each, compete in matches consisting of a twenty-second autonomous period followed by two minutes of driver-controlled play. The object of the game is to attain a higher score than your opponent alliance by scoring tubes upon goalposts, "owning" goalposts and by low hanging or high hanging from the ladder in the center of the field. A bonus is awarded to the alliance that has the most total points at the end of the Autonomous Period. You can see in this video how the robots need to pick up as many rings and place them on goalposts located along the rim of the playing field or those distributed in the playing field. The robot designs differ primarily in the way they pick up the rings. In the examples in the video, the teams build robots to scoop the rings up to place them on the goalposts. In this alternative design an arm is placed in the hole of the ring and holding the ring in place. Additional rings can be grabbed, one on top of the other. One interesting bonus point exercise had the robot latching onto the triangular structure in the playing field and lifting itself above the yellow rung. This is the largest regional VEX tournament which leads up the the World Championships in Orlando Florida on April 14-16, 2011. Winners from the Pan Pacific VEX Competition this weekend will continue on to Orlando to represent their school and State. ***UPDATE - 12/5/10, 7:28pm: The winning alliance of the HECO Division included ‘Iolani School, Bellarmine Preparatory Academy (Team A) and Bellarmine Preparatory Academy (Team B) from San Jose, California. Waiakea High (Team A), Waiakea High (Team B) and Tianjin Nankai Huanghedao Primary School (Tianjin, China) took second place in the HECO Division. The ROC Division champions included Island School, Radford High and Waialua High. Honoka‘a High, Radford High and Waialua High earned second place in the ROC Division. The champion alliance of the HECO and ROC Divisions competed in the high-stakes final championship rounds. In the end, the three-team alliance from ‘Iolani School, Bellarmine Preparatory Academy (Team A) and Bellarmine Preparatory Academy (Team B) from San Jose, California took the top honors, finishing as the Pan-Pacific Champions. Six Hawai’i schools who competed at the Pan Pacific Championship qualified to advance to the VEX Robotics World Championship that will take place at Disney World in Orlando, Florida, April 18-20, 2011, including:
  • Highlands Intermediate School
  • ‘Iolani School
  • Island School
  • Radford High
  • Waiakea High
  • Waialua High


MAARS and GUSS RobotsAlong side the MAARS was another interesting robotic vehicle called GUSS, the Ground Unmanned Support Surrogate. The team shown included (from left to right) Jesse Hurdus, Torc; Alfred Wicks, Virginia Tech; and Capt. Tim Bove, Marine Corp. Warfighting Laboratory. On first appearances, GUSS looks like a Polaris jeep equipped with antennae and sensors.  The units are here for the Marines who are prepared to put GUSS through its paces as part of this month's RIMPAC exercise. GUSS is primarily a support vehicle and is meant to carry gear or wounded personnel as a way to reduce the load from the ground troops. It can travel unmanned along rural unpaved roads, pre-programmed to follow a specified route,  at about the pace of a foot soldier. Talking to the team, it was clear GUSS was not meant to be  all things to all people. It is not an all terrain vehicle, it does not work well in heavy foliage and its not sophisticated like a Mars Rover (and it costs a lot less.) It is based on a modular design and the building blocks use off the shelf technologies which enabled rapid prototyping. The team then focuses on the integration challenges. The development cycle was less than a year and manufacturing of the units took about 6 months.  All four of the development models are here for the exercises. I found it interesting how these entities, Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division, Marine Corp Warfighting Laboratory, Virginia Tech and Torc worked together to produce GUSS. Funding came through the Department of Defense (Dahlgren) to the Warfighting Lab which then developed the specification for the autonomous vehicle. Virginia Tech is  leveraged for their programming and mechanical engineering expertise. Finally Torc is hired to build the units.  Seems like a viable partnership between DOD, University and a commercial company. Keep in mind Torc is not a vendor providing this directly to the military. GUSS is still in prototype. If the military decides to deploy these units, they will then go out to bid for production. Any limitations in GUSS' performance will be identified in these RIMPAC exercises and the team will qualify what needs to be done next.


MAARS and GUSS robotsIn addition to the "big iron" being used in RIMPAC exercises, there are examples of "little iron" robots being field tested to protect and support the ground forces. I got a chance to see a couple of them this past weekend. Shown in the photo is the Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System (MAARS) unit manufactured by Qinetiq. This system packs a M240B medium machine gun along with a spotting scope, an infrared scope and viewing cameras for a 360 degree field of view. The model I saw demonstrated did not have a gun mounted to it. The unit also has rubberized tractor treads making it suitable for rocky terrain. Field engineer Rich Leemon did tell me that it wasn't all-terrain. The MAARS robot is best suited for unpaved rural roads. MAARS is operated by remote control from a suitcase system or from a wearable controller, as modeled here by Jasmine Guevara, PACOM public affairs. The Bellows Marine Corp Training Area where the exercise took place was made up to appear like an Afghani village. You can see the flag on the building and the men in the foreground behind MAARS are role players brought in from San Francisco. Evaluators of the MAARS looked for system vulnerabilities and operational effectiveness by Marines controlling  the units in a free play exercise. The MAARS units run about $350K each and are still in the evaluation stage. In this video Rich Leemon explains the general operations of the MAARS as he guides it back onto the truck. Next up is GUSS.

VEX Robotics Competition 2009

This year's VEX Robotics Competition, held on Dec 4-5, involved the clearing of balls from one side of the field onto the other. Opponents needed to build robots that could pick up nerf size soccer balls and footballs and either dump them into the opponents area, shove them through a small window or throw them over the side. It was great to watch the strategy of the game and the thought that goes into designing the robots. All the teams participating in the 2009 challenge get the same VEX kit and instructions on the game objectives. This year's field included 90+ teams most from Hawaii but several from China and the US mainland. This video was particularly interesting as it clearly showcases the objectives for the challenge. The teams challenging each other are Farrington/McKinley (Blue Team) and Bellarmine College Prep (Red Team). The first 30 seconds is an autonomous period. The robot functions on its own, based on preprogrammed instruction. The goal is to get as many balls over to the opponents area as possible. The video starts off in the Bellarmine field and later moves over to the Farrington/McKinley side. Pay close attention to the Bellarmine design. Their robots have unique qualities. The robot closest to the camera can fling the balls from the basket. Very useful to minimize the balls falling out of the basket back onto your side. It also efficiently picks up balls by drawing them into the basket. The other robot on the far side is made for defense, able to block the opponent's robot from dropping balls on your side. During the autonomous period they are able to unload a lot of balls. During the next phase the robots are controlled by operators. Notice how quickly the Bellarmine team scoops balls and clears their area. It was nearly empty when I decided to move over the view the Farrington/McKinley side.  To the credit of the Farrington/McKinley team they gave it an awesome try but the McKinley robot ran into technical difficulty and froze. It was a lopsided victory for Team Bellarmine, who went on to sweep the championship. Of course it is all not about winning the competition. A lot of studies, teamwork, strategy, presentation skill and execution goes into the VEX competition. There were teams as young at 8-9 year olds from China, middle school kids from Pearl City Highlands, high schoolers and the Bellarmine team (** Note: the Bellarmine team members are all high schoolers as well) who had parents/mentors that work at NASA Ames Research. All in all a very fun and exciting event to witness. Congratulations to all the teams that participated. Excellence awards went to McKinley and Pearl City Highlands; Tournament Finalists when to Honoka`a and Waiakea High Schools. You can see the full results here. I am looking forward to next year's challenge.