Innovation Inspiration Aspiration and Robots

22 August 2017

Benefits from Robotics

Robotics can be the source of many benefits, and combining subjects helps maximise benefits. Here is an example of a real success, not in one subject but in several, all combined for a common goal. At its heart is robotics, but there is much more to its success than applying maths and computing, as will become clear.

In early 2017 some students of London Design and Engineering University Technical College - LDEUTC - went with the Institution of Civil Engineers to Italy with a mission. Trips like can this combine engineering fun with holiday fun. They had been programming a robot to ski. They could test and refine their work on real snow. The results are available on various websites - just search for ICE, robot and ski and you will find them, a few are listed at the end of this.

The students clearly gained from the event as I saw when I met some of them when they presented at an exhibition, Ecobuild, in London in March 2017. There were many competing presentations in the Excel Arena; this one was full, compelling. Standing room only. Passers by became watchers. Year 11 and 12 students were holding the floor, along with their robots.

In a recent series of tweets I used photos and links to the skiing robots, and was asked why programme robots to ski, not taking the bins out? LDEUTC chimed in, I am pleased to say, with aspiration, that if they could programme a robot to ski, programming a robot to do the bins would be easy. I added that there was innovation and inspiration too, as revealed by the number of people who watched the presentation at Ecobuild. But there is more. Let's look at how we learn and why we learn, what the benefits are, and how the learning can be applied to jobs now and in the future. Maths and computing involves work with applications to other jobs too.


People skill and management are near the beginning. If you wanted to fire the enthusiasm of people how would you go about it? Tell them facts or give them something that would appeal to them, that would make them think. Also you have to make it relevant to a real course, with in this case a real challenge in maths and computing. Programming robots is a good subject. But to do what? Putting the bins out? Practical, a real application for every day needs. A chore. But what about making the students' work fun instead. Something to attract the students, inspire them, get them fully and actively engaged with a challenge they could try out in an unexpected setting. Programming a robot to ski sounds good to me. And it clearly worked for the visitors at Ecobuild.

Some of the requirements for a skiing robot are: balance; movement; sensitivity to changing terrain; sensitivity to sudden surface changes. Ice and snow are not homogenous; ground underfoot is not smooth and predictable, as most of us will have learned from experience. Can robots cope? There are the practicalities of designing skis for the robot, and a way of fitting them securely. 

The challenge goes farther. There is the need to convey the goal to people who will join in with the event, people with interests that range from student participants to funding - parents for example. There are the records to keep and the videos to make, the presentations to prepare. 

This is not a simple exercise in only one subject. It is complex in a range of subjects: maths and computing are at the core, but  real success comes from the overall aspiration, the inspiration, and the innovation. Some or all of the skills involved can be applied to jobs in very diverse fields. We all need to work in teams, to write, to present, to report, and to enthuse colleagues if we are to gain funding, win work, and compete in order to be successful in careers and social lives. There is more to programming a robot to ski than maths and computing. Success on the slopes led to developing skills for a wide range of options for careers, benefits for all. 

Next... are robots a threat or an opportunity. Let's go for opportunity. But that article is for another day.

Below are some links to LDEUTC and ICE material.

The views expressed here are my own. If there are errors in this blog please let me know so that I can correct them. The photo is one I took during the presentation I watched.

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