Robotics a catalyst for technology advancement

Singapore educator touts robotics as platform to spur tech-savvy students to be innovative, and pick up technological skills relevant in commercial world.

SINGAPORE--Some may consider it kids' game, but robotics can go a long way in encouraging students to think creatively and learn to build products that are commercially viable, said a local educator at Republic Polytechnic (RP).

The tertiary institution on Wednesday held its inaugural Underwater Robotics Olympiad, a competition targeted specifically for secondary school students. The polytechnic had clinched three medals awarded at the country's Singapore Robotic Games (SRG) competition, held earlier this January.

The Underwater Robotics Olympiad is the result of a collaboration between RP and A-Main Objectives, a home-grown enterprise that specializes in robotics technology and building materials. Sixty teams from 42 secondary schools in Singapore participated in the competition.

A-Main supplied the components, hardware, motors and controllers required to build the robots in the contest, while RP provided the software used to operate the robots.

Compared to land-based robotics, underwater robotics expose students to a different set of difficulties and concepts on robot building technology. This urges young minds to be creative in order to solve the unique challenges, said Tan Heap Jui, assistant director of capability development at RP's school of engineering. "[Such] competitions will unleash their creativity," he told ZDNet Asia in an interview Monday.

RP's Underwater Olympiad was held in the school's swimming pool, featuring obstacles around which participants have to maneuver their robots. The different dynamics and density faced by the robot underwater posed a challenge for students.

"When in the water, you are dealing with three-dimensions, on land you are dealing with only two-dimensions. You also need to take care of water proofing," Anthony Ong, managing director of A-Main, explained in the interview. Apart from not allowing water to seep into the electronics compartment, Ong noted that condensation might take place when the robot is submerged. Students were then challenged to think of solutions to prevent such incidents, he said.

Prasanna Kumar, senior manager of RP's robotics laboratory, highlighted the importance of the putting together a sound conceptual design for the robots, including issues such as placements of motors, which affect the propelling motion, and the buoyancy of the robot.

Students will realize how daily household objects, such as plastic storage containers, can also be used in the construction of the robot, said Kumar, adding that these items can be easily found in most hardware shops.

Tan noted that the main objective of the competition was to create a platform to raise interest in robotics, and deviate from the typical "hard-selling" of engineering.

RP students have to complete a final-year project that employs the use of their technical and programming skills in creating a robot, he said. Hence, competitions such as the SRG, greatly complement the school curriculum in providing the platform for students to showcase their innovation and creativity, Tan said.

Commercialization of robotics technology
Once out of school, students can then put their robotics expertise to real-world commercial deployments.

According to Ong, robotics technology have been used to build products such as flight simulators. Specifically, A-Main helped one customer build a simulator that used actuators, which are mechanical devices that send and receive impulses to move and control a machine, to mobilize a model plane.

This allows the flight simulation to be brought "out of the screen", making the process more visual and real, said Ong.

Tan added that robotics, coupled with RP's entrepreneurial module for first-year engineering students and the inclusion of entrepreneurship in school projects, allow students to utilize as well as commercialize their technical skills. At the same time, it helps them design products relevant to daily and commercial use, he said.

But, Ong noted that the one component that remains a challenge for robotics toady is power supply. For instance, a robot that is approximately 30 centimeters high is typically supported by a battery pack that occupies 30 percent of its weight. "A battery is still a battery. Without advancements in power delivery systems, there can't be a lot of advancement in robotics", he said.

Ong noted that if the power source can be improved and built with the ability to generate power, robotics technology will have room for improvement.

A possible alternative to the conventional DC (direct current) power source are solar powered units, where heat generated can be converted to kinetic energy, he said. In a DC source, only 30 to 40 percent of its energy is converted to electrical power, compared to up to 60 percent in solar energy.

Based in Singapore, Konrad Foo is an intern with ZDNet Asia.