Story by Yuki Nakajima
The creators bring their robots to show them and to ask others for help to solve technical problems. This is what Bellingham Artificial Intelligence and Robotics Society (BAIRS) is for. Once a month, the society offers opportunities for the robot creators to develop their robotic skills.
The society is a non-academic and non-profit organization that focuses on making robots and sharing ideas about robotics. It is affiliated and supported by the Computer Science Department at Western, and the participation of the group is open to anyone, including high school students, college students and adults. The members do not have the exact same robots. They create their original robots which can move, catch and write.
Six shelves are surrounded the desk, and tiny colorful parts for making robots are tidily put away in the small semitransparent drawers. Jianna Zhang, associate professor at Western Computer Science Department and president of the society, smiles and starts talking about the society while drinking a cup of tea in front of her special desk.
In the middle of quarter, current vice president of the society visited the robotics class as a guest speaker. After the discussion, Zhang decided to create robotics society. When Zhang made the society in September 2004, there were less than 20 members. Now, 116 non-student members and 181 students are on the society's mailing list.
Part of the non-student members are high school students. High school representative Kevin Criez says being part of the society helps the high school students see what is happening at the university level of making robots, and also allow them to work with younger students.
"I think it's a benefit to our kids to be tying with Western and [understand] what's going on," Criez says. "We try to get high school more involved. It'll be nice to have all high school around here something going on robotics."
Zhang started teaching a graduate level robotic class at Western in 2003 and she is the only professor teaching robotics. She says robotics is a good research area, and there would be lots of potential industry hiring students for robotics.
John Huddleston, a post graduate student at Western, has been working on two projects, and one of the projects is making a robotic guide dog. He started working on the project of robotic guide dog since March 2008. As he speaks, his eyes suddenly start sparkling with excitement.
"The idea [of making a robotic guide dog] is to have the guide dog easily trained and could overcome difficulties the dog has, like being distracted by people or food," Huddleston says. "[Robotic guide dog] is also able to be retrained lots of different ways and learned more than dogs because of having great capacity."
The problem of creating a robotic guide dog is how to program interesting learning task for a robot, Huddleston says. For robotic guide dog, learning simple rules of guide dog is not a complicated procedure, however, it is difficult task to learn what's dangerous and know when to stop walking, he says.
"I've been looking into a biological method of detecting danger to understand how animals detect danger," Huddleston says. "[I've] been trying to find something that would be good model for robot."
The members of the society including Huddleston are working on their project for upcoming event, Linux Fest Robot Exhibition. Joe Edwards, a retired professor, is also planning to attend the event. Since last year's Exhibition, he has been making parts for robots out of recycle parts.
While taking out control units made of recycle parts from small cardboard box, Edwards says it is hard making out of recycle parts because he has to sand each recycle parts and glue them together. The sensor he made is a palm size and four colorful wires are attached to a black slender rectangle piece. Edwards says a robot would move zigzag if this sensor is installed.
Other members are also preparing of the event. Claire Fritze, the member of student robot club, is working on developing drawing robot. Unlike other robots, her robot is holding a red color Sharpie. Fritze says when her robot sensors white color, it draws a letter "W," and when the robot recognizes black color, it draws a letter "B."
Her goal is to make her robot respond any condition and draw perfect letters. Fritze says she had to measure the length of the robot and the movement of the arm holding Sharpie precisely so that her robot is able to draw clear letters.
"It took me 8 hours straight if I would have worked all together," Fritze says.
The society's members are focusing on Linux Fest Robot Exhibition, however, Zhang is now preparing for another important event for the society: Bellingham Robot Festival. The competitions are held for the event, and the society's members offer introduction of robotics class. She says the members of the society want everyone, including children, to come and join the society. Her goal is to turn robotic research into fun, and provide environment for citizens of Bellingham to have chance to try robotics.