Thursday, 18 June 2009

Bristol Robotics Lab Visit 11/06/09 part two.

The first thing I did when I got to the Robotics Lab was to meet up with Wenguo and their intern Jean-Charles. These guys have been putting linux onto the 50 or so epucks which they have there, Wenguo being the guy who designed the linux extension (and incidentally is incredibly knowledgable about pretty much everything), and Jean-Charles being the guy tasked with doing all the repetetive instalation work (so is an expert on how it should all be put together). I spend a good hour or so chatting about how the linux boards work and what I need to install them. Mostly this meant having things patiently explained to me, over and over again until I could understand.

After the session the three of us went for lunch and met up with my supervisor in Bristol Prof. Alan Winfield. If you have a passing interest in swarm robots (or robots in general) then you may have seen this video before:

Alan is the guy in the video!
The project they're talking about in the video is called SYMBRION, which aims to create swarming robots that can combine together to achieve some goal. In the video they show an example of this end goal with the robots forming an X and walking (1). Wenguo, Alan and one of my supervisors in York, Jon Timmis are important people on this project!

Anyway, after lunch I was given a small tour of the lab by Wenguo and Jean-Charles picutres and details about this will be included when I get the information from my camera. Unfortunately I didn't get to see EcoBot this time, which is a shame because it's really cool. EcoBot is a robot which has a digestive system, not a virtual or simulated digestive system a REAL one. It consumes dead insects (2) and converts their bodies into electricity to power its movement. There's a video of EcoBot moving around, as you may guess the little black blobs it leaves behind are poop! Robots like this are really interesting because it makes you wonder just what qualities make something alive. This robot moves and eats and excretes, it's sensitive to external stimuli (light) it only really lacks reproduction and growth. Does that make it alive?

After visiting BRL I now have a list of extra stuff we need to buy to get the linux boards working on the epucks. I'm hoping that it won't be too difficult. Jean-Charles has written a very thorough guide to installing them and since the boards haven't been officially released yet I'll probably be one of the first people to work from the manual. Hopefully I'll be able to give Jean-Charles some useful feedback about it, having written a manual recently I know how difficult it can be to get constructive feedback on that kind of thing. Since coming back from Bristol our technicians in York have had a lot of questions about building the boards and all the parts required. Hopefully this will help Wenguo to make a really thorough package to describe the PCB and components.

(1) sadly this hasn't actually been achieved yet and that video is stop-motion animation. The tiny robots just can't make a strong enough connection for that kind of thing yet.
(2) Don't worry animal right activists! They collect them from around the lab from windowsills and dusty corners they don't kill them especially.

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