Georgia Tech Preps Personal Robots For Computer Science Students

The university is working on a small wheeled robot and a robotic arm with a video camera to pump up interest in its entry-level computer science courses. Researchers claim that robotics is about to enter the equivalent of the PC era in computing.

Patrick Mannion, Contributor

July 13, 2006

3 Min Read

SAN JOSE, Calif. — A new academic group at Georgia Institute of Technology will design personal robots for use in education, claiming that robotics is about to enter the equivalent of the PC era in computing. The effort is partly motivated by a desire to address a nationwide downturn in computer science enrollment.

The Institute for Personal Robotics in Education (IPRE) is working on a small wheeled robot and a robotic arm with a video camera to pump up interest in its entry-level computer science courses. It also plans to design robots for use in secondary, and maybe even primary schools.

"We want to bring robots into computer science courses to make them more exciting and effective," said Tucker Balch, an associated professor at Georgia Tech and the director of IPRE. "Computer science enrollment is generally declining. After the dotcom bust it seems computer science is not cool anymore," he said.

Microsoft announced it will donate $1 million over three years to help establish the Institute which is co-sponsored by Georgia Tech and Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. The two universities will also kick in $1 million to launch IPRE which will be based on Georgia Tech's Atlanta campus.

The software giant initiated the process by inviting eight universities to compete for the $1 million investment in robotics. Georgia Tech won over Microsoft with its proposal for providing students with their own personal robot.

The concept of personal robots has seen mixed fortunes to date. Boston-based iRobot has garnered some success with its Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner. However, Sony has pulled its $1,700 Aibo entertainment robot from the market.

Nevertheless, Balch is a firm believer in the advent of personal robots for many industries.

"All the pieces exist today, driven by cellphones and laptops," Balch said. "Five years ago we didn't have the battery power density, the low power, high performance processors, the high reliability motors or the low power high bandwidth wireless networks that exist today," he added.

Lowering costs is the next major step. "Its hard to say if we will do that in two or five years, but seeing a company like Microsoft invest in this area is the writing on the wall," said Balch.

In June, Microsoft launch its Robotic Studio, software geared to a broad set of users who might want to program robots in an easy-to-use way. Georgia Tech will use the tool in some of its classes, though that was not a requirement for the Microsoft investment, Balch said.

"Microsoft has really filled a hole. There are a lot of tools for people with PhDs in robotics, but nothing for the average person who wants to dabble in robotics," he said. The program is free, in part because Microsoft is "trying to get people to adopt it so they can become the operating system for tomorrow's robots," Balch added.

Balch said the Institute's first robots will help demonstrate computer science concepts, injecting an element of hands-on fun he hopes will attract new students to the field. The robots will be designed to cost less than $200 at retail where they will be shrink-wrapped with a computer science textbook.

Classes using the robots are expected to begin in January. Georgia Tech teaches computer science to about 3,000 students a year.

The designs will probably use Bluetooth or other basic wireless technology, perhaps derived from wireless computer mice. They will also include speakers, microphones, LEDs and switches to engage students.

"We want to extend this up and down the field to high schools and even elementary schools as well as other college departments in science and math," Balch said.

IPRE will act as part of a larger Robotics and Intelligent Machines Center that Georgia Tech created earlier this year. The center pulls together as many as 30 faculty working in robotics who previously had worked in a variety of university departments.

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