R-one swarm robot – low-cost platform for robotics enthusiast and students
R-one robot is a part James McLurkin’s aspiration to create an inexpensive and sophisticated robot which could be affordable by everyone. McLurkin, who is the director of Rice University robotics lab, decided to improve the robotic platform used by university and lower its cost in order to enable its usage among his students and other robotics enthusiast.
“I want robots to be as popular as scientific calculators”, said McLurkin. “I want to support a curriculum where every student has their own robot and can study individual lessons, and where they can also work in teams – using their robots collectively in multi-robot systems.”
McLurkin created his first as a teenager, and at age 20 he built what was then one of the smallest, self-contained robots in the world. Afterwards, he won the Lemelson-MIT student prize for invention and went on to become a lead research scientist at iRobot Corp., where he managed the DARPA-funded Swarm Robotics project.
He began working on the R-one robot shortly after arriving at Rice University in 2009. McLurkin’s Multi-Robot Systems Laboratory specializes in creating both the hardware and software that allow robots to work together in swarms. The robot uses antenna to communicate to all the robots in its vicinity wirelessly, and it also communicate to other individual robots by employing infrared communication.
“When we had the big oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year, it would have been fantastic to have 1,000 little robots swimming around in the Gulf to identify where the oil went”, said McLurkin. “Earthquakes offer another practical application. Humans are particularly ill-suited to look for survivors after earthquakes – we are too big and too weak. Swarms of small robots could penetrate the rubble and carry out a coordinated search much faster and more safely.”
Lowering the cost enabled Rice researchers to study large swarms, but it was also a way to introduce an affordable robotic platform to the students.
McLurkin is already pioneering the educational model for the R-one in his introductory engineering course for Rice freshmen who’ll have a robot on disposal. Students can program each R-one individually or use them collectively in multi-robot swarms. For the course’s final project last fall, McLurkin divided the class into teams for a tournament of “Quidditch” — a game in the popular Harry Potter books.
“It was a shameless attempt to get more students interested in engineering, but it was also a great educational experience”, said McLurkin. “The students had to work together to program their robots to do all the important things you have to do to win a game of Quidditch, and they did amazingly well.”
According to McLurkin, the parts for the R-one robot currently cost about $200 and can be put together in just a few minutes. Within the next year, he plans to begin offering the R-one as a kit that can be assembled at home or school.