Computer Students Build Robots from Scratch

Lia Poulos ’16, building a robot in Audrey St. John's computer science lab. Photo by Emily Weir

Barely two weeks into their ten-week position as computer science research assistants, four MHC students are having some serious fun.

Fun because their materials include 3D-printed parts, found objects, rubber ducks, and colored wire, and serious because their work is contributing to cutting-edge research in the robotics field.

The students are getting in on the ground floor of an emerging area of computer science. Specifically, they are working on a prototype to fulfill Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of Computer Science Audrey St. John’s long-range goal of creating a group of robots that will work as an autonomous team to perform activities such as search-and-rescue missions in areas too dangerous for humans.

But first, by the end of the summer, they hope to have four robots move together like a flock of geese flying in formation.

“One robot is the lead goose or mama duck,” St. John explains. Alyx Burns ’17 has already built a “baby duck” robot and programmed it to follow its “mama duck.” Other “baby ducks” include plastic toys perched on an iRobot Roomba vacuum.

“I didn’t know how to do this, but I realized you can’t make things if you’re afraid to make mistakes,” says Burns. “When you make mistakes, you just try new things.”

To St. John, the means—getting more women involved in computer science—is just as important as the end. “Men have dominated computer science as a field, but what’s happened at Mount Holyoke shows we can attract a rapidly growing number of women to computer science and technology,” she says. “Once our students see the material, they change their minds about doing it.”

Lia Poulos ’16, a physics and computer science major, wasn’t sure she was up to computer science—until she got to Mount Holyoke. When she was growing up in the Chicago suburbs, she says, “My guy friends would build computers in the garage. I had an aptitude for it, but I never thought to do it myself.” As one of only three girls in her high school physics class, Poulos says she “wanted to come to Mount Holyoke, where I wouldn’t feel alone.”

She is excited to be part of the MHC computer science community, calling it “an amazing opportunity” to study physics in class and then to apply concepts to robotics.

One of Poulos’s other projects involves fixing a telepresence robot. “Telo” allows Skype-like two-way video conversations, but with a controllable camera and base that can follow as a speaker moves around a room or even a building. “Just to make Telo move around, it felt like I was given some sort of power,” she said.

Xilin Yu ’16, a computer science major from Wuhan, China, and first-year student Keying Gu, from Ningbo, China, are also working in St. John’s lab.

The group started with hardware basics by creating robots with bodies made from old VCR cases, wheels made on a 3D printer, sensors that look like eyeballs, and a tiny computer that dictates their behavior.

Yu and Gu are focusing on the project’s theoretical underpinnings. They will develop an algorithm for minimizing energy costs when coordinating multiple robots’ movement. Yu hopes their work will indicate which robot should follow which robot so that they stay in formation with minimal energy cost. 

“Optimizing battery power, sensor, and communication costs is key to building an agile multi-robot formation,” St. John says. “Doing so requires some understanding of hardware, software, and theory, and it’s really exciting to give the students a hands-on research experience connecting material from different disciplines.”

“This research opportunity is really a gift to me,” says Yu. She did an independent study course in computer science last semester, and “saw how beautiful it is to use math to solve computer science problems. I love doing theoretical research that inspires real-life applications.”

St. John’s research is funded by a five-year, $411,531 CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation that she received last year, with additional support from the Clare Boothe Luce Foundation.

—By Ronni Gordon