Stanford robotics students show off class projects

The class is a chance for students to take the mathematical formulas and programming skills they learned in the "Intro to Robotics" class and use them to make a pre-fabricated robotic arm perform a task in the real world.

Steve Fyffe

The 'JediBot' can swing its sword about once every two to three seconds.

Robots that can swordfight against humans, play mini-golf, cook a hamburger medium-rare and even add the ketchup when it's done. They were part of the lineup for the final day of the Experimental Robotics course, when Stanford students show off their automated creations to classmates in the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

"The whole project – from design to performance – is three-and-a-half weeks, so this is remarkable," said computer science Professor Oussama Khatib, who taught the class. "These projects illustrate how creative our students can be when they're challenged with a problem."

The course is a chance for students to take the mathematical formulas and programming skills they learned in the Intro to Robotics course and use them to direct a pre-fabricated robotic arm to perform a task in the real world. Khatib said he is always amazed at the creative designs that students come up with.

"The most exciting part is when the students start thinking, 'OK, what can we do with that?' Then they start to form groups and brainstorm about what project would be dynamic, exciting and feasible," he said.

Some students find inspiration in unexpected places.

The "RoboCook" came to life because its creators were always hungry. But students found challenges in its design – the mechanical barbecue chef had to know whether it was touching the burger or the grill.

"They were able to use a force sensor next to the handle, so when the spatula is touching the burger, the robot can feel the contact," Khatib said.

The 'RoboCook' grills the burger and even adds the ketchup.

One of the toughest challenges was teaching a robot to swordfight with a human.

"The robot needs to locate the human hand and know what strategy to take in order to make the next move … in real time," Khatib said.

But students figured out a way to use off-the-shelf technology to make it work by incorporating the Microsoft Kinect sensor, which is best known as part of the Xbox game console. The color sensor can detect objects in three-dimensional space.

"We use the color image to isolate the sword from the background, because the opponent's sword is green and nothing else in the background is green," said graduate student Ken Oslund, who helped design what he calls the "JediBot," named in homage to the lightsaber-wielding characters from the Star Wars movies.

Another group attached an LED light to the end of a robotic arm and used the robot's movements to "paint" colorful time-lapse photos in a dark room, including images of a star and a flower.

"I love projects where I get to make something, design something and figure out how to make something work," said graduate student Tim Jenkins "To be able to take a class where you're actually programming and are actually making something move, that was really exciting."

Khatib said it was rewarding to see students use their academic knowledge to solve real-world problems. His favorite moment during the course is the day students demonstrate their creations.

"It brings a lot of excitement to the students, to the teaching assistants that worked with them and to me personally," he said.