Robots Emerge from Computer Science

Wednesday, May 16, 2012 - 9:30am

Meet Telo and Kowheelie, robots designed and built as independent projects in computer science by Jessie Hamelin '13, Jingjing Rong '15, and Liye Fu '15. Both robots were built during the spring semester under the guidance of advisors Audrey St. John, Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of Computer Science, and Dan Barry, adjunct professor in computer science.

Telo, a tall “telepresence” robot mounted on wheels, receives instructions via a Wi-Ficonnection, enabling it to be operated remotely. Using Telo’s webcam ‘eye,’ the operator can maneuver the robot and have it interact with people and situations. The operator types in commands (forward, back, left, right, etc.) into the video conferencing application Skype, which relays the instructions via a local Wi-Fi connection to an Android tablet on the robot.

With the help of Barry, Hamelin, a computer science and mathematics double major, ordered the parts and built Telo from scratch.

“We built Telo in one night, with help from many of the students in our department, as well as Dan and Audrey,” said Hamelin. “We did everything from drilling holes, to setting up the software on the laptop. I learned that if something doesn't fit where it's supposed to, then hit it with the largest heaviest object you have until it does.”

During the semester, Hamelin and Telo attended the New England Undergraduate Computing Symposium at Brandeis University. Telo, however, was operated by Hamelin’s advisor—Barry—back in South Hadley.

“Telo lets operators feel like they’re actually at an event or in a situation, when in reality they’re not,” said Hamelin.

“There's a lot of knowledge you gain by doing things hands-on and that's hard to get in the classroom,” she said. “Research is also great because you have freedom to move in different directions with it.“

Kowheelie is a prototype robot pet. The inventors, Liye Fu ‘15 and Jingjing Rong ’15, are in the early stages of developing a business to sell Kowheelies and other robot pets to college students.

Kowheelie presently functions as a mobile alarm clock and is controlled through a webpage. At the time set online by the user, Kowheelie scoots around and sings songs. Rong and Fu plan to add features that would let Kowheelie avoid obstacles and react to human interaction, such as patting.

The inspiration for Kowheelie came from a desire to show other students what computer science was all about, said Rong.

“Most students think that what computer science students do is just sit in front of a computer and write code all day, but actually CS is so much more interesting. We wanted to actually produce something that is cute and fun, to let other students have a more comprehensive view of CS,” she said.

“After setting our goal as a robotic pet, we thought that if the pet has some practical use, that would be a more attractive product for college students,” said Fu. “Dr. Barry suggested that the alarm clock function would be very useful and is a practical goal to achieve. So we decided to build a cute-looking robotic pet that can wake people up.”

Kowheelie has already earned the students praise and cash – they won $1,000 at last month’s Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation’s Entrepreneurship Initiative awards.

Independent studies such as these enable students to learn by dealing with unexpected challenges, said St. John.

“In this case, working with hardware for the first time, Jessie, Jingjing, and Liye had to learn a different type of debugging or trouble-shooting. Some of the problems they encountered were ones that neither Dan nor I were familiar with, so the students really had to find solutions on their own,” she said.

The students also learned how to pitch and present their inventions.

“Since the students brought their robots to several events, they gained the invaluable experience of prepping a demonstration and presenting to both technical and non-technical audiences,” said St. John.

St. John says demand is high for similar independent studies and sees a bright future for the MHC students who design and build the robots.

“We see the benefits of this type of experiential learning, as the students who participate seem destined for success: They’re winning awards, going on to top graduate schools, and interning at some of the most competitive industry giants, like Google and Microsoft.”