Whether you’ve been inspired by Big Hero 6 to make your own Baymax; are reminiscing over Robot Wars and want to recreate the carnage; or if you’re an evil genius plotting your world domination by robot army… everyone needs to start somewhere!
I took the opportunity to start with an free Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) at FutureLearn.com, hosted by Reading University. It’s called Begin Robotics and is a great 4 week introduction to the world of Cybernetics.
You don’t need any prior experience – everything is introduced assuming no prior knowledge and Richard Mitchell, Associate Professor of Cybernetics and Reading, does a great job at explaining some complex concepts such as PI(D) Control and Artificial Intelligence in a simple way. Admittedly, I wish they had gone into more detail about some of the topics but it would be hard to do so without extending the course an extra week. At the very least it gives a springboard for doing some further research into topics.
Week 1: Introduction to Robotics
The first week introduced us to the history, applications and types human interactions with robots. The last point is a particularly important one to consider especially after the recent death of a German Volkswagen worker as he was crushed by a robot.
We were also introduced to some simple online simulations of robots such as ERIC, the University’s own mobile robot who you get to know inside out over the course of the 4 weeks. There is actually talk about making a kit available so participants of future courses can put together and play with one of their own. I’m really hoping this goes ahead 🙂
At the end of every week there’s also a mini-quiz to test your knowledge of the week’s subject material.
Week 2: The Robot Anatomy
Coming from an Electronics/Control Engineering background, this week was definitely my cup of tea. We talked about the types of sensors and actuators for robots (including a lot about biologically inspired echo-location for movement), power supplies and processors/circuit boards. We used some more complex simulations to control the movement of a robot using different motor speeds and avoiding objects.
We also watched some videos of little ERIC in action, the more advanced Rover in simulated earthquake conditions and introducing Baxter, who I met at Reading University’s Open Day and also features in this TED talk from Rodney Brookes.
Week 3: Cybernetics and Control
The third week focused on control and the future of virtual reality. There’s a great explanation of closed loop feedback and the advantages of Proportional and Integral control with some more simulations to support it. I remember attending a 4 day training course to teach us about PID controllers which could have done with a simpler introduction like this.
Next, William Harwin, Professor of Interactive Systems and head of the Cybernetics Research Group at the University of Reading, introduces the idea of haptics: a method of giving physical feedback to the user of a digital system by providing a force. There is a parallel design robot which allows dental students to perform dental simulations and feel the results of their actions without the risk of doing it for real. It’s a really interesting subject which has some really impressive future applications in healthcare, training and gaming. Richard also showed us a virtual haptic drumkit made by some of the students at Reading which looks pretty cool.
Week 4: Robot Behaviours and Learning
In the forth and final week we delved into robot behaviour and how it can be similar and dissimilar to living systems. This included looking at simple neurons, interaction between robots and instinctive behaviour.
Braitenburg vehicles have sets of wheels controlled directly by two light sensors (L and R) and instinctively move towards or away from the light depending on their configuration. This concept is used in a simulation to show how robots can form part of a predator-prey hierarchy and the course mentions Craig Reynold’ Boids, which uses a 3 simple rule computer program to give a realistic simulation of flocking birds.
The subject I found particularly interesting was of robot learning and the idea of using trial and error for a robot to determine it’s next action from live probabilities.
There was also a short video showcase of some of the university’s student projects, including a humanoid robot which is capable of standing up on its own.
Overall, the course was a great introduction to the basic principles and possibilities of robotics. It’s all interactive and there’s always support available in the comments and community if you get stuck. Being a short 4 week course, it did leave me wanting more but that’s great. Hopefully, there’ll be a follow up course of FutureLearn to take things a little further but, if not, I’ll have to wait for the uni term to start.
If you want to get in on the fun, I believe the course is still running over at https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/begin-robotics, otherwise it’ll be running again on the 21st of September. As part of it, if you really want to, you can get a certificate of participation once you’ve completed over 50% of the steps to prove how dedicated you really are. (I personally think it should be 100%, but…).
Next I’ll be continuing looking at some programming courses in preparation for starting Computer Science. Perhaps I’ll move on to Begin Programming: Build Your First Mobile Game.