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Robots set to take over Wilkes

Published: Sunday, March 20, 2005

Updated: Friday, December 26, 2008 15:12

Robots have often been featured in sci-fi thrillers like the recent film, I-Robot; but they've also been used more practically in everything from modern medicine to outer space.

Soon, they'll also be featured on campus.

Although still in its infant stages, the robotics club commenced at Wilkes University with its first meeting on Tuesday, March 8. Twenty-four students came to the meeting in the Stark Learning Center (SLC) to learn more about both the club and the world of robotics.

The club aims to teach students how to build, operate, maintain and program autonomous robots, which are robots that can be operated without human interference.

"Our club primarily will focus on mobile robots that are autonomous, " said Matt Zukoski, an assistant professor of mathematics and computer science and a co-advisor for the club.

"The robotics club started with an idea from the CS (computer science) and the engineering department combined," said Hisham A. Abu-Nabaa, an executive engineer who serves as co-advisor to the club. "Both departments have an interest in starting robotics courses," he added.

Robotics courses have not been offered at Wilkes for some time because of a lack of instructors proficient in in the discipline. Abu-Nabaa and Zukoski were specifically hired to fill this void. They believe that there is a growing interest among students to learn about robotics, which is becoming an ever-growing field in engineering.

In fact, the U.S. Department of Defense has mandated that by 2015, one-third of all military vehicles must be autonomous.

"There's a growing interest across the country in robotics, partly due to the war in Iraq," said Zukoski. Because of this, along with an increasing demand for robots in manufacturing industries, there will be more careers available in robotics.

"Robotics is very interesting, in my belief, to the students and it really puts some application to all that they learn in classes in a combined format," Abu-Nabaa said. "We're hoping once we start producing some of the products that we're working on and have students participating in competitions it will gain more interest in the public and the students eyes." One such product, Abu-Nabaa explained, is autonomous robots.

But before these student-built robots are able to invade campus, there are several meetings and events that the club is planning for the near future.

Members of the robotics club will start off by participating in an obstacle course race on Saturday, April 30 in the Arnaud C. Marts Center. The race will feature toy tanks that will be operated by the students with a remote control. The tanks will have a computer and a camera installed in them. Since everything will be color coded, the software will have to determine what is an obstacle as the tank tries to get its way through the course.

Both Zukoski and Abu-Nabaa plan for the club to participate in national competitions such as RoboCup, a competition between robotic dogs playing soccer, and Battle Bots, a competition between two homemade robots. Also, they plan to enter an elite robotic race, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Grand Challenge, which is a race between schools across the country of autonomous robots for 175 miles of desert roads and trails. The winner receives a grand prize of two million dollars. So far, the furthest a robot has traveled was seven miles.

Since it involves a lot of disciplines, the club is open to all majors. In particular, they need computer scientists for the software, mechanical engineers to build the robots, electrical engineers to do the wiring and psychologists to study the social application of these robots, such as how they get along with humans.

The Robotics Club will also be a part of the new Center for Computational Intelligence, which will be in SLC 127. This center is to foster research in artificial intelligence, computer vision, computational assistant, robotics and undergraduate research.

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