Engineering Robotics in Boise
U of I engineering graduates design interactive robotic arm prototype for Boise’s Discovery Center of Idaho
Imagine a robot that moves just like a human at the shoulder, elbow and wrist. It’s compact, transportable and can rotate, sort, stack and build – and it’s a very visual learner.
A team of University of Idaho College of Engineering mechanical engineering and computer science graduates spent their senior year configuring a robotic arm that can perform these activities and more all by mimicking the user.
The 2019 Senior Design Capstone Project was sponsored by the Discovery Center of Idaho in Boise as a feasibility study to help the hands-on science center look into introducing its own robotics exhibit in the future.
“We were all new to robotics,” said U of I computer science graduate Chaeun Kim ’19. “We utilized all the resources we could find online or offline. We also spent a lot of outside-of-school time with the robot. One of us would take the arm home and play with it … or break it.”
Most of the team’s time was spent developing code to tell the arm how to mimic gestures tracked through a Leap Motion controller.
“Leap Motion is an innovative addition,” mechanical engineering graduate Austyn Sullivan-Watson ‘19 said. “It’s inexpensive, yet quite an effective device for transferring hand gestures to a robot with minimal delay.”
These controllers use LED light and monochromatic cameras to generate 3D versions of objects it observes. Users simply hold their hands over the small device, and without touching it, the controller can track an individual's palm, forearm, and each individual finger joint on each hand.
Kim said the Leap Motion controller’s capacity for high-speed communication posed a challenge in getting the arm’s computer component, or microcontroller, to communicate just as fast, telling the robot to move.
“We had to either slow down the Leap Motion, or find a way to talk to the microcontroller faster,” Kim said. “We had to find the balance between them.”
The team also tested several different power sources and microcontrollers to control the arm’s movement. Through testing, they discovered the manufactured arm’s gripping mechanism was too small, so a bigger gripping “hand” was 3D printed to allow the arm to pick up larger blocks.
The interdisciplinary team of engineering students put about 600 hours over the course of their nine-month project.
“This project took all they’d learned in their classes. They had to integrate the knowledge to reach their project goal,” said Ralph Budwig, U of I Boise mechanical engineering professor and the team’s faculty advisor. “It’s good preparation for when they take jobs, because it’s going to be more like that. You’re not going to have the luxury of focusing on one area.”