In the past, robots were just an archetype of science fiction. Nowadays, they have rapidly changed various industries and walks of life, and might even become one of the main labor forces in the future. From Super Mechs to Baymax, from Doraemon to sweeping robots, how do robots come into being, set aside their heroic animated identities? Where ought we to begin if we were to create a lively robot?
1. Learn from animals
In the ADVANCED ROBOTICS ENGINEERING course, the teacher Zhang Liaoran believes that it is more reasonable to regard Robotics as “living machines” rather than mere robots. This is a concept that covers many types of discussion. Taking “Animal Study” as a starting point, the final assignment of this course requires students to make a bionic robot. The purpose is not to imitate an animal toy, but to observe, record, and analyze the dynamics of the natural world. Students are asked to apply simple motion logic to structural modeling, manufacturing, circuit, programming, and design knowledge that they've learned in the classroom, and create a tool and product that can be used in other fields.
The five letters in STEAM refer to Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics, which emphasizes the exploration and practice of interdisciplinary learning. In this class, assembling parts is only a very basic requirement; what really matters is theory, observational experiments, project management, and design ability. Moreover, the core of the class is not mere memorization of theories, but the ability to advance projects by comprehending and using the knowledge learnt in class. The final assignment results have shown that this ability is not possessed by everyone. Mr. Zhang hopes students can demonstrate their capacities for observation, thinking, and repeated learning.
2. The magic of exploration
Before the official exhibition, every student needs to present their own robots. Mr. Zhang believes that projects are not made impressive by good-looks, but by how they show the students’ exploratory spirit from beginning to end (In many cases the works showing an exploratory spirit are also the good-looking ones).
Some projects are based on the movement of reptile limbs. Students spend a lot of time trying to use pulling-force; some study the skeletal structure of bird wings (the two ends of the bird are kept level when flying) and design the steering gear by imitating the twisting of the middle joint; Some students explore the steering gear as well as code editing logic, and use a JOYSTICK-controlled robotic arm. One can see input, research, and interesting thinking in these works.
Without some explanation, we may not be able to recognize Richard’s tortoise robot. But if you read through his report, you will find that his robot has captured the essence of a tortoise crawling. By observing and studying the tortoise’s skeleton and structure, and analyzing its movement trajectory through its motion video, the process of animal learning is easily dismantled. Richard used the Boston Power Mechanical Dog as a reference case, and also adopted 3D printing to make the bionic tortoise easy to manufacture and fold.
Richard used pulling-force to achieve the crawling action. Since the movement of the end limbs is pulled by one or more wires and rubber bands, the mechanics of the tortoise’s crawl have also undergone many modifications in practice. Of course, there are still problems such as insufficient traction, high power consumption, and slow running speed, but it is through this slow polishing process that we can see the real process of advancing a project. Just like the tortoise, every step counts!
Arcee chose to make a robot by imitating a bird. The most special joint of a bird is its pair of wings, which are like human hands in that they can serve many functions and enjoy great flexibility. In Arcee’s vision, the degree of flexibility is realized with 180-degree steering gears. 10 steering gears were required after calculation. All circuit batteries and control templates are stuffed into the bird’s belly, to make the appearance of the robot bird look better.
Although the mechanical bird has not been finished, and cannot “take off” for the time being. However, Mr. Zhang believes that Arcee not only explored the bone structure, but also thought about the flying trajectory of birds, and realized that the birds’ wings are actually parallel to its body. This way of movement not only consumes less physical strength on the part of the bird but also makes birds flap their wings more frequently.
Ants’ mechanical arm
The robot created by Goried does not at first seem to have anything to do with ants, but it delicately links the ant’s leg structure with a mechanical arm. During the production process, Goried was driven by problem-solving. From the very beginning, he faced the size and time management problems of the servo device, and got inspiration from the robotic arm in its resemblance to an ant’s leg. Although this kind of creative process seems distant from the earliest of bionic animal images, Goried understands the application scenarios of robot motion, so that this “one-armed ant” might really come in handy in real life.
Capture the movement of ants every 0.25 seconds and place them evenly on the coordination system.
Jason’s work is based on bionics, furthered by his own imagination. The way of walking imitates the movement of cats, and the image of the robot comes from Star Wars.
3. Don’t be a daydreamer
After the course is over, students’ projects are displayed at the entrance of the STEAM Center. Students and teachers passing by are welcome to try them out. Mr. Zhang believes that although there is a risk of the robots being destroyed, it allows the students to understand the deficiencies of their robots. After all, if the robot fails after just a few instances of use, its stability needs to be improved.
In the STEAM course, the importance of “engineering thinking” was repeatedly emphasized. Engineering thinking is the ability to discover possibilities and take action through experiments. It is definitely not limited to solving problems. Most epoch-making engineering products have been unprecedented. Action Plans arevery important in projects. In students’ project reports, you can see the timeline of the calendar, and the thinking and reshaping that took place between each step. Mr. Zhang said, “in each class, I encourage students to take action instead of daydreaming, and learn theories step by step to promote personal growth.”
In the future, robots will be increasingly involved in human life. Robots may have identities, thoughts, and even emotions. This is no longer a mechanical rhapsody, nor is it just a humanoid tool. To build a viable robot requires not only observation of and respect for life, but also perseverance in the attempt..