Building blocks for machine vision

Engineering can be child’s play-and we should have more of it.

Oct 1st, 2006
Th 0610vsd Andywilson

Engineering can be child’s play-and we should have more of it.

I never did like Lego. But it was only at this year’s NIWeek in August that I realized why. My father, you see, was a mechanical engineer. Lego was a toy, designed for children to build different structures such as animals, houses, and baby people with simple, colored building blocks. Thirty-five years ago, that just about summed up the state of the product. My Dad was a Meccano man-a man who could see the value of a metal product kit that you could use to fabricate, with nuts and bolts, cranes, carriages, and other contraptions that actually worked!

On Christmas Day in 1965, a wonderful present arrived. It was the Meccano No. 7 outfit (or “erector set” as they were called in the United States). Actually, there were two because, you see, I am blessed with an identical twin brother. We built all the structures that were “predesigned” in the brochure and then some very odd ones that only my brother could have dreamt of designing. Several decades later, I still possess both sets, although, like my brother, both have become relatively worn and, dare I say, obsolete.

Today, the face of Lego has changed. At NIWeek, Lego Education (Billund, Denmark; www.legoeducation.com) partnered with National Instruments (NI; Austin, TX, USA; www.ni.com), Tufts University Center for Engineering Education Outreach (Bedford, MA, USA; www.ceeo.tufts.edu), Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Academy (Pittsburgh, PA, USA; www.education.rec.ri.cmu.edu), and Vernier Software & Technology (Beaverton, OR, USA; www.vernier.com) to produce a continuum of robotics sets, programming software, sensors, and curriculum aimed at helping students learn essential science, technology, engineering, and math concepts. “With the next generation of Lego, students have at their fingertips the latest in robotics hardware and software to build stronger and smarter robots that more closely mimic real-world machines,” says Jens Maibom, general manager of Lego Education.

In the press room at NIWeek, National Instruments had set up demonstrations of how to program USB-tethered Lego-based robots that could move and respond to external stimuli such as sound. Using a stripped-down version of LabView, even I could make the robot walk and stop at the sound of a handclap. NI should be given a round of applause for its effort in promoting this technology to “children.”

With my past history with Lego, however, I still remained skeptical. Surely this was just another way to sell toys to the masses-a computer upgrade of an established product. Here again I was to be surprised. There on the show floor, I witnessed a vision-guided robotic system untangling a Rubik’s cube.

Designed by Thomas Klinger and his students, including Christian Cemernjak, in the Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering at the Carinthia University of Applied Sciences (Villach, Austria; www.fh-kaernten.at/eng), the system used a combination of off-the-shelf vision, motion control, I/O, and LabView software. Cemernjak told me how the system had been prototyped. And he sent me a video of the prototype that had been developed with-maybe you have guessed-Lego! Instantly, my cynicism disappeared. After 35 years and a few microprocessor developments, Lego had been transformed into something more practical than inanimate building blocks.

But what of Meccano, you ask? Well, just visit the company’s Web site at www.meccano.com and see how they too are competing in the microprocessor-based age. It is certainly a revelation. It is not driven, it seems, by the need for pure profit, but by a mission that will benefit science education around the world.

One has to wonder, however, about how many of today’s Lego and Meccano kits will resurface in houses of parents 30 years from now and why their children have entered more lucrative fields such as the medical and legal professions rather than pursue more noble careers in mechanical and electrical engineering.

Click here to enlarge image

Andy Wilson
editor
andyw@pennwell.com

More in Boards & Software