Note to R2-D2: Watch Out
By Caryn Mirriam Goldberg
Advanced technology leaps off the screen and into action for professor's final exam
Riddle: What races, sumo wrestles, does stand-up comedy and collects ping pong balls in its mouth? Solution: The right answers on a University of Kansas final exam.
Arvin Agah, KU assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science, is the mastermind behind the unusual final. A year ago, Agah's graduate level robotics class built little autonomous beings that raced, ran a navigation course, sumo wrestled and - not to ignore the thrill of performance - put on a talent show in which one robot delivered the punch lines to a student's jokes by flashing lights or beeping.
This spring students enrolled in Agah's Computer Systems Design course built robots to test the theories they studied in his class last fall. The final exam? A ping-pong ball hunt, but instead of searching for eggs, the robots sought ping-pong balls. Agah hid the balls in artificial trees and behind slopes in a six-foot-wide artificial landscape built in Learned Hall. The robots were then given the task of collecting the balls. Each robot had to be small enough to fit in a shoebox at the beginning of the race, but they could expand to any size once they cleared the starting line.
But why build ping-pong-ball-collecting robots in the first place? The exercise teaches students to put textbook engineering theories into practice, Agah said.
"Students have to show their capability of using engineering science and technology to solve a specific problem with given resources," Agah said. "The students must design an entire system."
The man behind the students behind the robots has a lot of experience designing robotic systems. Working with KU Medical Center researchers, he is developing a robotic exoskeleton for physical therapy in stroke rehabilitation. The exoskeleton robot, basically a hollow robot a stroke patient will wear on his or her arm, collects data and helps move the patient's arm at regular intervals. Agah is also working with aerospace engineering colleagues to build a flying robot for aircraft surveillance.
Closer to earth, Agah said that in 20 years or so personal robots may be as common as personal computer. Robots might vacuum our floors, mow our lawns and fly over swimming pools to keep track of our kids. The designers of those future robots might be students in Agah's class now.
Today, though, those students have a much simpler challenge - ping-pong balls. For Agah, watching his students tackle the task is rewarding.
"The greatest achievement is looking at the people's faces and seeing them enjoy taking the final exam," he said.
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