Illah Nourbakhsh is a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, which has one of the world's most prestigious robotics programs, and his research is funded by the likes of Google, Intel and Microsoft. But in the end, he says, he does it for the kids.
"[Robots] are really interesting to a diverse group of people," says Nourbakhsh, whose research has revealed that when kids are given programming tasks that involve robots, girls are no less interested than boys, and everyone is more likely to stick with the curriculum. "If there's a [software] bug," he adds, "the robot may veer off the desk and then I'll have to dive for it. That inspires people more than a bug on a computer screen that causes a red line to be off by two pixels."
In collaboration with Rich LeGrand, president of Austin-based robotics parts manufacturer Charmed Labs, Nourbakhsh wants to take DIY robotics to the next level, by offering the public an entire suite of tools to build their own droids from parts readily available at a hardware store—no soldering or programming required.
The heart of Nourbakhsh's project, dubbed the Telepresence Robot Kit (TeRK), is the Qwerk, a box just over five inches square and an inch thick. Into this tiny, Linux-powered frame LeGrand and his team of engineers have packed a 200 megahertz ARM processor—the same chip that runs Nokia N-Series Smartphones and the Nintendo DS—32 megabytes of SDRAM and 16 megabytes of flash memory. It can connect to the outside world via WiFi, USB 2.0, 16 servo controllers and a host of other inputs and outputs.
At $350 a pop, Qwerk ultimately costs far less than it could have, considering how much power it packs. The reason, LeGrand says, is that he didn't have to shell out extra money for engineers, many of whom volunteered their time and worked at a discount because they believe in the project. By putting Qwerk within reach of educators and hobbyists, the TeRK program aims to allow anyone to use it as a control center for just about any robot they can imagine. Initially, though, Qwerk will be used for teaching and for projects that are "just for fun."
Online, TeRK users can access complete parts lists for robot kits that range from easy (think a three-wheeled spybot with a camera that can be controlled from any Web browser, and which can be built in a couple of hours) to ambitious: LeGrand envisions an arm on a Qwerk-powered robot that would allow it to carry out such functions as pressing elevator buttons in order to navigate entire office buildings. All of the software that runs Qwerk is open source, which makes TeRK incredibly flexible in the hands of the technically savvy. "We're hoping people notice that the sky's the limit," Nourbakhsh notes.
Qwerk even uses a field-programmable gate array (FPGA) to carry out control functions. Unlike normal integrated circuits (which are unalterably etched at the plant), FPGAs can be reconfigured by the user. According to LeGrand, this kind of control is unprecedented.
"[TeRK] is not only open from a software perspective, but also from a hardware perspective," LeGrand says. "That's something this industry has never seen."
Nourbakhsh and his team have tried to make TeRK accessible to even the least programming-savvy students by creating software that allows students to program Qwerk simply by arranging on their computers colorful icons that represent various tasks. Qwerk then performs the actions represented by those icons in the order specified by students. But Nourbakhsh hopes to appeal to geeks as well as to novices.
"We also want to have people [akin to mechanics who] go under the hood of the car,'' he says. "At all levels we reveal enough of the interior detail so that users can go in and program at the lowest level they want."
The Qwerk uses Internet Communications Engine to allow a wide variety of programs on a PC or Mac to send commands or receive sensor data directly from the little blue box. Nourbakhsh and his students are also working on an interface for Microsoft Robotics Studio.
Members of the larger TeRK community are beginning to build their own projects using the Qwerk, along with instructions and software available on the TeRK Web site, whereas members of Nourbakhsh's lab have concentrated on using those tools to develop robots and curricula designed to retain the interest of groups that frequently drop out of traditional computer science courses.
"Retention has always been a problem in introductory computer science classes," Nourbakhsh acknowledges. Computer science is the only field of science and engineering that has not experienced an increase in the enrollment of women over the past two decades. Quite the contrary: the percentage of women granted degrees in computer science has been declining since its peak in 1985. Many in the field view this trend as a crisis, and it is part of the reason that Google, Microsoft and Intel have agreed to support Nourbakhsh's work. All three companies are eager to build a diverse workforce in the coming decades.
"When you look at who enters these classes, it's diverse, it includes women but they drop out early," and you are left with a bunch of male "geeks," Nourbakhsh says. One of the curricula he developed to address this issue used robots in narrative play. "We wanted to incorporate robots into things that are already meaningful. It turns out that girls in middle school are blogging, keeping diaries, etcetera, so we had them create robots that act out how they feel . It's very different from a robot that moves earth or picks up ping-pong balls."
As with other open-source projects that involve software built entirely by volunteers, such as Firefox and Linux, the success or failure of TeRK may ultimately hinge on attracting a pool of programmers and engineers willing to write new code for Qwerk and create new recipes for the hardware necessary to build robots.
"The hardware is important, but the community is the biggest part of this project," LeGrand says. So far, the community looks healthy: Nourbakhsh is about to post the first batch of projects submitted by Qwerk users. It is a varied group, including an ottoman that moves about, a doll that sits on your desk and inflates and deflates depending on whether you have had enough exercise that day, and an ambitious marriage of Qwerk with the Create platform from iRobot, the folks who manufacture Roomba, the robotic vacuum cleaner.