Robotics Laboratory prepares students for the future

Many still dream of the Jetsonian age where humanoid robots are chopping onions in the kitchen, vacuuming the stairs, and watering the philodendron.

While that technology isn’t quite here, already, robots are a part of our lives—even machines with physical, articulating arms. They’re in car factories, affixing parts of the chassis. They’re in medical research labs, sorting petri dishes and filling vials.

In the laboratory for ECE 470, Introduction to Robotics, around 60 students each year get a chance to work with robots like this. In the new Electrical and Computer Engineering Building, they are doing so in the control systems suite on the third floor, where the lab benches are equipped with cameras on overhead mounts and robotic arms. With this setup, the camera collects information about objects (often colored blocks) on the work surface, and the arm is then programmed to move and organize them.

“It’s a stepping stone,” said Dan Block, the teaching lab specialist who manages the equipment in the control systems labs. “It’sthe first thing you have to do in robotics, besides the math beforehand.”

The robotic arms are relatively simple, at least compared to those used in factories, but for the students, the teaching setup works well. It is robust and reliable, even if the arm movements don’t have millimeter precision like some industrial equipment.

“We like them because they can take a beating,” Block said. “There are some newer ones out there for education that I’m looking at, but I’m still a little leery of how durable they’re going to be.”


The lab is also equipped with one industrial-grade arm, a recent addition, equivalent to those sometimes used at semiconductor companies to sort and count parts. It will be used for special projects with students, as well as for demonstrations.

The curriculum in the introductory course focuses on the mathematics underlying robotic systems. Given the angles and length of the arms, the students generate algebraic matrices that determine how the elbows should bend, so the rubber claw at the end of the arm can reach and grasp its target.

“There’s math involved with taking the coordinate system of the camera and converting it to the coordinate system of the robot arm,” Block said. “They’re messy matrices. For that reason, you really can’t do it by hand because you would make a lot of mistakes. So we have these packages —Mathematica and Matlab — that generate these matrices.”

Introduction to Robotics is also offered through the departments of Computer Science, Mechanical Science and Engineering, and Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering. ECE Professor Seth Hutchison serves as the course director and is also the co-author of the course textbook, Robot Modeling and Control (Wiley), which is popularly used in engineering programs across the country.

After mastering this introductory content, ECE students can go onto other control-system or mechatronics courses and continue learning about robotic applications. And some students — especially those seniors with graduation close at hand — could find a speedy route into industry, where robots like this, though different from the one dusting for George and Jane, are nonetheless a part of daily life.