IHMC Robotics Lab Open House 2017

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Atlas robot at IHMC Pensacola campus. Picture via Paula Burch-Celentano.

National Robotics week kicked off during April 8-16th. The Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) Robotics Lab from the Pensacola campus had their first open house in the new Levin center in downtown Pensacola, Florida on Friday, April 14th. Even though I am in full waddle-mode at five months pregnant, I took my geeky son and father to check out the event, and it was nothing short of amazing. We saw microbots, an Elliptical Runner, drones, 3-D printers, and the famous IHMC Atlas robot.

Full disclosure: I don’t know anything about robotics, but the great thing about National Robotics week is each event is an engaging and educational environment made for novices and experts to immerse themselves in a world of machines and discover the different types of operating systems used by these scientists. You don’t have to know the ins-and-outs of robotics in order to enjoy National Robotics week.

The local universities were present with some examples from their robotics programs. In the picture below, we observed a robot kicking a soccer ball. The process wasn’t seamless as there were some minor issues, which happens when working with robots. Sometimes you input the code and expect the robot to do one thing, but then it does something else.

Pensacola State College robotics table. Pic via M. Rininger

Last summer, my son learned just how difficult it is to program a robot when he was in the local 4-H Lego robot challenges in Virginia. His team took second place and didn’t move to the state level, but it was a great experience for him to learn how to work in a group dynamic with no prior experience in coding or robotics. The LEGO robot challenges promote STEM principles while encouraging creativity and problem-solving skills as a team. IHMC also provides their own IHMC Robotics Camp where rising 7th, 8th, and 9th graders work with the LEGO Mindstorm Robots. I wish I knew about the deadline sooner so I could sign my son up for this camp, because not only do the campers work with programming the LEGO Mindstorm Robots but they get a private tour of the IHMC robotics lab and they eat lunch with an IHMC research scientist. I don’t remember this type of camp being available when I was a kid. I almost wish they had an adult version of robotics camp, because why should kids get to have all the fun?

Even though Atlas was the main attraction, my favorite display was the Elliptical Runner (featured in the above video). What this video doesn’t show was the two failed attempts before I captured the above video. One of the great things about STEM is how budding scientists get to experience the importance of failure, because you never know when things aren’t going to go as planned. Plus, failed experiments are the best way to learn how to improve the overall process.

In the case of the Elliptical Runner, the audience experienced first hand what the process of a failed test run entails. In the first attempt, the plexiglass walls kept shifting during the run causing the Elliptical Runner to destabilize and lose traction with the treadmill. In the second attempt, the Elliptical Runner started losing body parts, particularly the parts encompassing its legs and feet. I’m not sure if robots have legs and feet or if there is a more sophisticated term (feel free to let me know in the comment section), but I could relate with the Elliptical Runner because I don’t like being forced to run either and I would throw my shoes, and feet if they could detach, in a tantrum too.

The main attraction, and the one with the biggest crowd, was the Atlas robot. This was the one thing my son really wanted to see since my dad has been talking about the Atlas robot for months. My son and I wanted to see if this robot was everything my dad proclaimed it to be, and we weren’t disappointed.

We were able to get multiple views of the Atlas robot in action. When we made it to the ground level we even witnessed a misstep as the rock bed shifted under the robot’s weight and Atlas took a tumble. Again, sometimes things don’t always go according to plan, which is probably why they had a crane tethered to the top of the robot’s head. Falls happen.

Pics via M. Rininger

The IHMC Atlas robot won second place in the DARPA Challenge. This is kind of like the grown-up version of the LEGO robot challenges. If you look at the stiff competition in the image below, you will see that taking second against all of those amazing robots is a feat that the IHMC team should be proud of achieving.

Image via IHMC Facebook Page

Taking second place in the DARPA challenge isn’t the only success the IHMC team achieved. They also competed in the first ever Cybathlon with their Exoskeleton. Unfortunately, we didn’t see that display as the room was packed at the time of our visit and I didn’t want to belly bump people out of my way, but you can check out IHMC’s Facebook or Twitter page for more photos and information.

Pic via IHMC Facebook Page

Even though we didn’t have a chance to listen to every scientist explain their robotics displays, I did snap some quick photos for your amusement which are displayed below. Unfortunately, I was beginning to overheat and feel faint due to baby geekling in my belly sucking my very life force. However, the short visit to IHMC’s Robotics Lab was filled with wonder and amazement. I look forward to next year’s open house as, hopefully, I will have more time and feel less faint, allowing my family to view each table and talk with each scientist in greater detail.

If you know more about these machines, please share your comments with us. I might not have the answers but someone in our collective might know more. Feel free to share your knowledge with us.

Images via M. Rininger