With creativity at the heart of engineering, it’s no surprise that IEEE members have embraced the maker movement. The Institute interviewed several who are working on DIY projects in their spare time—and they’re not doing it just for fun. Two members are demonstrating their handiwork in hopes of getting kids interested in robotics. And IEEE student members and volunteers in Turkey are using 3D printers to make plastic hands. One student branch is creating free prostheses for children, and another is working on a remote-controlled device to help perform dangerous tasks such as bomb disposal.
CONVERSATIONS WITH KEN
One way to turn kids on to robotics is by letting them speak to an actual robot. Enter Ken: an interactive humanoid built by IEEE Senior Member Grayson Randall and volunteers in the IEEE Eastern North Carolina Section. They began building Ken in early 2015 and received a US $36,430 grant to continue their work later that year from the IEEE Foundation, the organization’s philanthropic arm.
Randall is vice president and CTO of Ascot Technologies, a software company in Cary, N.C. He was 2015 chair of the section and originally pitched the idea of building a humanoid as a section project.
“From the beginning, the initiative received tremendous support,” he says. Several section volunteers as well as students from nearby universities met once a week for a year to develop the robot. IEEE also partnered with the Forge Initiative, a nonprofit in Cary that holds STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) programs for preuniversity students.
For their talking robot, the IEEE volunteers started with a mannequin’s head and torso. They embedded its eyes with thumbnail-size video cameras feeding data to a Raspberry Pi computer. The computer runs a program that can recognize faces from the real-time video feed. When Ken detects a face, it turns its head in the direction of the person. The volunteers are experimenting with a pair of wired microphones mounted near Ken’s ears that can detect where someone’s voice is coming from.
When someone speaks to Ken, the computer runs Google’s speech-recognition program to translate the words to text. The program then forms a text-based response, which Ken speaks via a text-to-speech synthesizer.
Through their partnership with the Forge, the IEEE volunteers have been demonstrating Ken to the general public, including students in kindergarten through fifth grade. “We sit Ken down on the floor so the kids can actually walk up and be at eye level with him,” Randall says. “Kids respond very quickly.”
So how good a conversationalist is Ken? “He can speak on a lot of topics,” Randall says. The robot, for example, can discuss how it was developed, and can answer questions about IEEE and the Forge. Ken knows a lot about movies, TV shows, celebrities, and other topics of general interest, according to Randall.
“But sometimes the discussion gets a little silly,” Randall notes, “because Ken’s responses can be unpredictable.”
No matter how the conversations go, people of all ages seem to get a kick out of Ken, Randall says. And the humanoid project hasn’t benefited only young children. Volunteers held weekly workshops last year for middle school, high school, and university students. Mentors from IEEE and the Forge described how they built the humanoid and helped students construct four bots based on Ken’s design. Participants learned basic concepts of software, artificial intelligence, mechanical and electrical systems, 3D printing, soldering, and circuit design and construction. So far, they’ve helped demonstrate the original Ken to more than 6,000 people in the community.
The IEEE student branch at Koç University, in Istanbul, is building 3D-printed prosthetic hands for children. [A volunteer holds an example of one in the photo at right.] Koç is one of several universities supporting the Robohand Turkey Association (RTA), a nonprofit in Istanbul that works with children who are missing hands or have other limb deformities due to birth defects, disease, or accidents. The IEEE Turkey Social Responsibility Project group is coordinating the partnership. RTA works with children directly, and IEEE volunteers build the prosthetics. The end result is free, custom prosthetics for children who need them.
Cost is an important factor. As children grow, they must be fitted with a new prosthesis almost every year, according to IEEE Student Member Pelin Pulcu, the IEEE Turkey Section social responsibility projects coordinator. Similar prosthetic hands can cost thousands of US dollars.
The Robohand prosthetic is made of lightweight plastic. Straps wrap around a child’s forearm to hold the prosthesis in place. The hand has moveable fingers that can grasp and hold objects. There are different ways to control the hand, depending on the patient’s disability.
Robohand is an open-source project, so volunteers can download designs, instructions, and other resources. Essentially, anyone who has materials, time, and engineering skills can build one. Once a hand is completed, the students deliver it to a child who needs it. The prosthetic is then customized to meet her measurements and needs.
Six members of the IEEE student branch at Dokuz Eyul University, Izmir—Huseyin Yapici, Fatih Ceken, Ilhan Berke Agan, Emre Fikri Baltaci, Mertcan Akin, and Meltem Sag—are working on a robotic hand [see video below] that is attached to a wrist joint and arm piece and can be controlled remotely. Their invention, the RobotEI, was featured in the April issue of Popular Science magazine’s Turkey edition. The team also placed third in this year’s Izmir Robotics League Competition, organized by the IEEE student branch at the Izmir Institute of Technology.
Their 3D-printed hand and forearm are made of plastic parts. The parts are printed at the university’s technology development zone, DEPARK. Students assemble the joints by tying the parts together with threads of plastic and nylon. The threads connect to a system of servomotors attached to gears inside the forearm. The motors turn the gears, which tug on the threads, enabling the fingers and wrist to move.
The hand is controlled remotely by a glove embedded with sensors on each finger. The sensors are wired to an Arduino Nano computer board about the size of a postage stamp. The board processes the movements and transmits signals wirelessly to a control circuit on the robotic hand. The control circuit is wired to the motors and moves them based on the movements of the human hand in the glove. If the person wearing the glove waves his index finger up and down, for example, the robotic hand will make the same movements nearly simultaneously.
The glove can control the hand from up to 20 meters away, and the team is incorporating Wi-Fi antennas to transmit the signals over longer distances. That would be especially important if the arm is one day attached to, say, a bomb-disposal robot—a situation in which humans would need to maintain a safe distance. But for now, the system is still a prototype.
RUBIK’S CUBE SOLVER
IEEE Senior Member Gim Soon Wan says he believes the best way to get kids hooked on engineering is to encourage them to build their own projects. It worked for his three children. Two years ago he and his son, Anthony—age 8 at the time—started building a robot that could solve a Rubik’s cube. To complete the cube’s puzzle, the player must manipulate its blocks so that the stickers on each face are only one color.
The pair used a Lego Mindstorms kit, which has hardware and software for creating custom, programmable robots. The cube solver was originally designed by David Gilday, a Lego enthusiast from Cambridge, England. (You can download instructions for building it and other projects at mindcuber.com.) Although the instructions are freely available, there are different ways to customize the robot, Wan says.
Wan’s Rubik’s cube–solving robot has an open container at its center in which the cube is placed. Infrared sensors detect the cube in the container. Next, a robotic arm flips the cube around to reveal different sides to the sensors, which scan each sticker to determine its color. Once the robot knows the color of all 54 stickers and their locations, an algorithm calculates the steps it will take to solve the puzzle. After all the steps are worked out, the robot manipulates the cube to do just that.
Wan and Anthony, now 10, as well as Wan’s 12- and 13-year-old daughters, Alyssa and Stephanie, all like to build Lego projects. Anthony gravitates toward mechanical problems, while his sisters enjoy programming, Wan says. The family has demonstrated the Rubik’s cube solver at several events including local STEAM fairs and IEEE Region 1 student branch conferences. They got a chance last September to show off the project at the World Maker Faire, in New York City, where IEEE-USA sponsors a booth.
“Children and their parents were excited to see that a Lego robot could actually solve a Rubik’s cube,” Wan says. “Some of the students at the fair even tried to compete with the robot to see who could solve it first”—and a few indeed beat the robot.
Wan mentors children in his town of Windham, N.H., where he hosts free robotics workshops each weekend at his home. Fifteen to 20 kids attend each week, he says. They build robots from Mindstorms kits and learn basic coding concepts to program different types including four-legged robots that crawl, four-wheeled robots that mimic construction vehicles, and two-legged robots that walk and dance. Every week Wan gives the children a different challenge. After about two hours of instruction on basic mechanical engineering and coding concepts to complete a task, they have 90 minutes to build a bot that can do that job.
“It’s important for students as well as engineers to engage in DIY projects so they can learn from their own mistakes,” Wan says. “This will give them valuable skills they will not get from textbooks.”