How to build online robots: practical guide

Queensland University of Technology offers step-by-step guide using open online courses (MooCs).

Insights into building robots

Insights into building robots

The Queensland University of Technology is building its massive open online courses (MOOCs) capability. The latest offering centres on robotics, together with a free two-staged program.

This “world-first” Queensland University of Technology (QUT) robotics’ program shares the practicalities of building robots in an online environment. This is open for under-grads or “armchair learners,” says the university.

The two-pronged MOOCs initiative leverages open-access learning and is available worldwide to an unlimited number of participants.

Enrolment for the QUT MOOCs was launched this month. An “Introduction to Robotics” program kicks off on February 15 and runs for seven weeks. This is followed by a seven-week “Robotic Vision” course that starts on April 12. Prospective students can enrol through the QUT website.

In the past, very few robotics MOOCS were offered by institutions globally, says the university. This gap is being addressed by a more tailored program for postgraduate-level students. These students are undertaking science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) related research. The university’s two MOOCs will enhance this STEM knowledge.

Beyond armchair roboticists

Professor Peter Corke, the course creator and a world-renowned roboticist with QUT's Science and Engineering Faculty said the MOOCs might attract some high-school STEM stars or skilled “armchair roboticists.” But he expects that most students will be undergraduates, perhaps studying engineering or computer science at a university that does not offer a strong robotics program.

Professor Corke, also a director at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Robotic Vision, said the university’s robotics offering is also helpful for STEM professionals looking to expand their skills set.

The industry’s big players like Google, Apple and Boeing are already pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into robotics and automation, he said. “It's an industry that'll be screaming for workers into the near future."

QUT's Introduction to Robotics explores the fundamentals around mathematics and algorithm skills. These include the representation of pose and motion as well as kinematics, dynamics and control.

As an optional practical assignment, students with a LEGO Mindstorm kit can build a simple robot arm and write the supporting control software.

Connecting the dots

The more advanced Robotic Vision program takes the basics to the next level. This introduces students to the evolving field of computer vision. They can learn how images are formed or how computer images are processed. Information can be extracted around the colour, size, shape and position of objects.

As an optional practical assignment, students can build an intelligent vision system that recognises objects of different colours or shapes.

"If students did the first course and built the robot, they can connect the vision system to the robot to create a robot that can respond to objects in its environment," Professor Corke said.

Throughout the MOOCs, students will be quizzed to check their understanding. They are also given weekly tests and programming assignments. These count towards the final grade. Those who pass will receive a certificate of completion.

Students are supported by online discussion forums to share information and ask questions of both the tutors and students.

No walk in the park

While free, the courses are not easy. "They're certainly not going to be walk in the park - both MOOCs involve theory, mathematics and programming," Professor Corke said.

These courses mark QUT's foray into MOOCs involving a project being led by Professor Corke's passion for robotics. He also has a sizable YouTube following. "A couple of years ago I broke my knee, just days before semester started," recalled Professor Corke.

"I had to record my lectures at home and a colleague showed them to the class. At the end of semester I put them up on YouTube. I was really surprised by the interest those lectures generated - more than 70,000 views, with one lecture alone viewed 32,000 times.”

Professor Corke said this response made him realise just how many people were genuinely interested in robotics. “It got me thinking about how I might be able to deliver structured course content online.”

As a start, he spent around 16 months working with QUT's eLearning Services team to develop the MOOCs. "It's interesting to reflect on progress,” he recalled. “Once upon a time we needed a lecture theatre and a lab full of hardware to teach robotics.”

In a digital age, educators do not need a resource-intensive, bricks-and-mortar model to deliver a strong robotics course. "These days we can teach mechatronics with LEGO kits at home rather than labs, and I find that a truly exciting prospect,” he added.

Follow Shahida Sweeney on Twitter: @ShahidaSweeney

Tags MOOCsroboticsQueensland University of Technologyonline learningfree education

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