When Robots Come to Visit

iRobot Demonstration Attracts a Crowd

With the push of a joystick button, the robot seemed to come alive, with its ‘head’ (a.k.a. video camera) rising from about a foot off the ground to higher than six feet. The robot was brought to Empow Studios’ Lexington site by iRobot Senior Mechanical Engineer Bill Farmer as part of a STEM outreach event to celebrate National Robotics Week.

The PackBot®, originally designed by iRobot and now produced by Endeavor Robotics, was just one of a number of robots and parts brought by Farmer who talked to the kids about engineering and showed the students what the robots were capable of.

“We can’t push four because it goes too fast,” Farmer pointed out to the kids, who all had a chance to try it out under direct supervision. Eventually, with space cleared, the group was able to view the robot in fast mode.

PackBot is designed to go into areas, monitor situations and potentially pick up or manipulate items in places not safe for humans. They’ve been deployed to detonate bombs and versions were even sent to Japan to assist following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011. The remote controlled robots carry out missions while humans safely watch a computer screen from a distance.

Though PackBot has a vice grip designed for clamping down on an object, 10-year-old Michael, who tried out the robot, noticed it doesn’t have the same dexterity as human hands. “I don’t think it will be bottle flipping anytime soon,” he said as he maneuvered the arm to pick up a water bottle, spun it, and placed it back on the ground.

Another robot the kids got a chance to try was the FirstLook®, originally created by iRobot and now produced by Endeavor Robotics, which is built to be thrown through windows and offers soldiers or police a video glimpse of a location without having to put themselves in danger. The kids also found it was pretty good at tackling ramps since it can easily rightside itself if it flips over.

On the other side of the room, students used paper to mimic leaves for the iRobot Looj®

which is designed to move through gutters while a spinning arm churns leaves out and over the edge of a roof. The user operates it remotely and avoids too much time on ladders. For the kids, gutter cleaning proved to be entertaining.

“They love it!,” said Empow instructor Pallavi Naravane of the robotics event, which filled up in less than an hour. “They slowly but surely start making the shift from being wowed to understanding what makes the robot tick.”
We had over 100 people on a waiting list for this event,” added Empow Outreach Director Dave Gutierrez. “So we hope to hold another interactive event like this soon.”

Mission: Inspiration

“National Robotics Week has surpassed 300 events in all 50 states,” says iRobot STEM Program Manager Lisa Freed, who organizes the outreach events and helps promote the national event, which iRobot founded.  “The week allows students all over the country to see robotics, and at the same time expresses the strength of the industry.”

“The focus is on inspiring students,” adds Freed. “We are not aiming to teach software, to build robots, or spend days with students. What we want to do is make them interested enough to take the next step.”

For Freed, iRobot’s STEM outreach program is a year-round effort. “In general, our program will work with students of almost any age,” she says. “The conversation and goals differ at each age, but we are happy to talk to 5-year-olds as well as college students. Our program offers tours here of our iRobot museum. They spend about an hour learning our history and what the robots do and we talk about careers in robotics. We also visit schools and educational events.”

Employees like Farmer, who typically spends his days designing robotic parts and sometimes travels to China during the manufacturing process, volunteer to be on the company’s STEM outreach team. As part of the program, they talk about their careers and demonstrate the robots. “I enjoy seeing the kids’ reactions when they see something cool,” says Farmer.

“We are lucky to be the generation of lifelong learners,” adds Naravane who was also intrigued by the demonstration. Who doesn’t love robots?” she asked as she emphasized the impact on the kids. “Such visits are tangible ways to further understanding of the field of robotics and engineering.

In addition to getting young kids interested in robotics, iRobot actively works to boost the outlook for older students. “We host a few job shadows where students spend half days at iRobot and see work spaces and labs to learn more about careers in engineering,” notes Freed. “That is more for the college bound high school student. Finally, we have started to visit university students to encourage them to stay in engineering.”

Roomba Reimagined

One newer product designed to boost interest in STEM is the Create® 2, which has borrowed from the Roomba® vacuum design, to offer a mobile robot platform for educators, students and developers who can use it to understand the fundamentals of robotics, computer science and engineering.

“Create 2 is our programmable platform,” says Freed. “The robot allows users to send commands via a serial cord and have the robot do what you ask.” The Create 2 allows users to try a variety of programming approaches. It can be connected to a laptop, with a micro-controller or other options. It offers basic behaviors like sounds and movements while allowing user to attach sensors, grippers, cameras and other electronics.  

Music Production at Empow

The Create line was originally intended for high schools and colleges, but the robot now works with Scratch and can be programmed with the visual programming language, making it inviting for younger students. “It allows students to begin coding and programming and later on building onto the robot to start real robotics,” says Freed. “As an affordable option, we see it in many classrooms and teaching students what they need to begin a robotics career.”

Empow students have had a chance to try out a Create 2. “We have one student exploring how to integrate the Create to program it using LEGO EV3 software,” says Gutierrez. “It’s nice to have more options for kids to explore.”

Naravane also looks at the big picture and emphasizes that good experiences make a lasting impression. “Strong interest initiated in the early years goes a long way to shaping a bright future,” she notes.

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