This November and December, Fort York Branch's Digital Innovation Hub hosted an Innovator in Residence program focused on robotics. Resident Myke Predko hosted a series of classes, demos, and other programs for delighted enthusiasts. We're happy to share the following update from Myke - in his own words - below:
The very word “Robot” catches the attention of just about everybody. For something that really isn’t a part of society, they certainly part of our everyday lives; from assembling the products we use to exploring places where humans can’t go, it is rare for us to go through a day without seeing tangible evidence that robots are working for and with us. I think it’s only natural that people want to learn more about them and try to see what robots can do for them as individuals.
While robots are a major part of our lives, they almost belong to the occult – despite seeing them in movies and TV, they are largely behind closed doors, inhabiting factories, research labs and far out in space. Robots in fiction have personalities that range from friendly and helpful to adversarial and destructive. Robots in factories assemble products to fantastic tolerances while detecting and resolving manufacturing issues without human intervention. Robots involved in exploration are experiencing things that we can only imagine: what it’s like inside a volcano, seeing creatures at the bottom of the ocean or providing mankind with a first look at the wonders of space. What is missing is an understanding of how these robots came into being and what was involved in their development.
I think people realize that when they see robots there was a lot of effort that went into their creation. Character attributes and responses aside, fictional robots are the products of many hours of design, machining and assembling by craftsman that have taken years to learn their craft. Manufacturing robots are the result of many generations of trial and error; learning what works and how to create assembly instructions for robots quickly and efficiently. Scientists and engineers that have spent years learning have designed robots tasked with exploration so they can add to the body of humanity’s knowledge. It is obvious that today’s robots are not the result of a few hours work in a home workshop or garage.
So where do people go when they want to learn about robots and start the process of learning more about them so they can see what goes into their design and what kind of issues do developers have when designing robots?
The logical answer is the library; where resources are available for learning about subjects and technologies. Unfortunately, robotics is a bit of a stretch for libraries that don’t have the experience to bring robotics to its customers. I’m excited to be the Fort York Innovation Hub’s Innovator in Residence for robots and bring robotics and its technology to the library in an accessible way.
One of the things that I have discovered over the years is that robotics is what I call a “superset technology”. The basic technology used in robots is easy to understand, driving a motor, making a sound, reading a sensor are all very simple to work with but, in a robot, they are integrated together into a system which is then used by other systems within the robot. At the top of these multiple systems of parts is a single system that is responsible for the operation of the robot. Working through these different systems can be overwhelming and difficult to understand.
There are products, such as Lego “Mindstorms”, which does a good job at integrating the electronics, but can require a significant amount of work (and skill) to create a robot in them; it is not unusual to need more than 20 hours to build one of the example robots and much longer to design, debug and build your own creation. Coupled with this is the large number of (small) parts provided with the kits that adds to the construction time as well as the need for storing and organizing the parts.
Fortunately, technologies are available to simplify this process while still providing the experience of creating your own robot design from scratch. The Arduino and Raspberry Pi small board computer systems are excellent robot “brains” with thousands of different example programs and circuits that can be used as the basis of the robot design. Servos from radio-controlled models provide easy to work with and precise motion actuators that can be used in a variety of different robot functions. 3D printers are becoming more available which allows the design of robot structures very quickly, especially compared to options like Lego as well as providing the ability to easily replicate successful designs and “tweak” the unsuccessful ones without having to take everything apart and start over. Bringing these technologies together allows lay people to create their own robots effortlessly using the resources available at Toronto Public Library.
Over the past four weeks, I have been doing a number of sessions with Fort York branch customers helping them to understand the different technologies involved in robotics as well as designing a chassis along with a basic set of components that will allow for the design of rovers and stationary (arm) robots. One of the things that I have learned is the importance for people to see their creations “coming to life” and making sure that in the sessions we end on a positive note. This was exemplified by the afternoon spent on the creation of “cardboard robots” in which customers make some robots out of foam core and then animating them with Arduino’s with servos – it was so much fun, we’re looking forward to doing it again before the end of December.
Going forward, I expect to have a number of basic robot designs available (Wheeled Rover, Six Legged Robot and robot hand) along with adapters for light and distance sensors. I will also list a number of books, available in the library system, that people can use as a reference and start working on a robot that will catch everybody’s attention.
- Myke Predko, Innovator in Residence at Fort York Branch