Mechanics, electronics and control systems come to life in ISE Mechatronics Lab
Robot cars, motorized guitar tuners, a robot that imitates hand movements through a sensing glove. These are just a few of the creations that are brought to life in ISE’s Mechatronics Lab.
Located on the third floor of the Transportation Building, the room that is filled to the brim with all kinds of robots becomes an environment of exploration when students get to work.
Mechatronics is simply where mechanics and electronics come together. Although it’s a relatively new term that originated in Japan, it can be described as a variety of things, according to Dan Block, engineering teaching lab specialist and instructor of GE 423 (Mechatronics).
“Your car is a huge mechatronic system, a robot is obviously a mechatronic system,” he said. “It’s endless, there’s just a lot of different things that you could specify there.”
The Mechatronics Lab is one of the College of Engineering Control Systems Laboratories, which Block oversees. “My job is to work with all the different professors in control theory here at U of I to house their classes, and I put them in the best lab that works out for them, in the six facilities that we have,” Block said.
The lab is also home to GE 423, a course Block has taught on his own since 2006. The goal of the course is to teach implementation of control algorithms on an embedded system.
“The experience we want the students to get out of the class is a very hands-on experience,” he said. “So we are throwing some theory at them, but not as much of proving it and figuring it out totally. It’s more implementing the theory on, for example, robot cars.”
The students in the course are first expected to learn programming and are given a microcontroller board to use.
“What’s nice about that is they can take it home and learn some programming skills for embedded systems with homework, because it takes us a while to get up to speed on this robot car,” Block said.
By the midpoint of the class, the class focuses more on the robot car. The students also have a small project that they can complete in about a week and a half.
“I tell them to think of a fun project … that you’d want to put on your desk at home,” Block said.
Moving forward, the students participate in the end of the semester project that becomes a sort of contest involving the robot cars and a small wooden obstacle course on the lab floor. The students program the robot cars to move through the course and collect golf balls that are dispersed throughout.
Tori Fujinami, a senior in electrical engineering who took GE 423 and has worked in the lab, said that working with the robot cars was her favorite part of the course.
“I wanted to take this course because I was into robotics,” she said. “Outside you learn the control theory and you do maybe one or two labs, but you never really actually get to … implement your programming skills with robotics.”
Block said that most of the students who enroll in the course are focused on control systems, but there are also many students focused on mechanics. The class can be challenging coming from either side, but Block said the course allows students to concentrate on implementation.
R.S. Sreenivas, an ISE professor who previously taught GE 423, said the course is almost at the same level as a capstone course, meaning that it culminates all important aspects of this area of study.
“There’s no other place where [students] get exposure to all of this,” he said.
For the most part, the lab is utilized by students in GE 423 as well as other classes that share the lab, such as ME 461 (Computer Control of Mechanical Systems) and AE 483 (Aerospace Decision Algorithms). Graduate students may also use the lab to finish research projects.
“Much of their research is done outside this lab, and then they get to the end of their research and say hey, it would be nice to implement this,” Block said.
Many innovative creations have come out of the class and other students’ projects. Some are housed right in the lab, such as the motion tracking camera system.
The system includes infrared cameras that are positioned around the room. They send out infrared light that detects a group of gray balls that are on top of the lab’s robot cars.
“The multiple cameras can find those balls and then triangulate it to find where the robot is in the 15x15 area that these cameras can see,” Block said. “Video game manufacturers and programmers use these kinds of systems for getting the motion of a person.”
Other projects include a ball balance that uses a touch screen similar to one that would be used in a tablet that allows the user to touch and command a ball to go to a certain point. A motorized guitar tuner could attach to a guitar’s headstock and tune the instrument after the strings were plucked. Sensing gloves that manipulated a robot that walked along with the wearer’s hand movements created a sight that Sreenivas remembers as being “frighteningly anthropomorphic.”
Students described their experiences in the lab as being beneficial to their education and future careers.
“Working in this lab and the course has had huge benefits,” said Adam Cornell, a graduate student in systems and entrepreneurial engineering. “I learned a ton about standard lab equipment which I had never really used before. It was the first course I took where we actually got to physically implement control on a real system where we could see the results.”
Cornell said he worked in the lab mainly in coordination with GE 423, where he worked with Block.
“He is very hands-on and incredibly knowledgeable about everything going on in the lab,” Cornell said of Block. “He was always there to help and was even willing to come in outside of class hours to help students work on their projects.”
Fujinami agreed that what she has learned in the lab has given her a foundation for further learning.
“Building on from here, I mean, systems only get more complex from this,” she said. “So I think it’s a great starting point for any number of things.”
What students learn in this lab and in GE 423 can help them succeed in a variety of fields and disciplines. When asked what most students who have worked in the lab go on to do for a career, Block said it’s hard to say. “It’s not one place,” he said. “We get students going all over … it’s just such a wide variety.”
Students have went on to work for Google, General Motors, and NASA, to name a few.
“Since I went on to do research on mechatronic systems and ultimately would like to do similar work for a living, the skills I learned in the Mechatronics lab have proved invaluable,” Cornell said.
Sreenivas said what students learn in the Mechatronics Lab will be helpful for a variety of fields, such as the expanding field of personalized medicine.
“Personalized medicine is huge,” he said, describing products such as insulin pumps that can be attuned to the human body. “We’ll need all of these things. And we are nowhere close to what could be in twenty years. We can’t even think.”
“The opportunities are incredible, but without something this basic — this is the boot camp,” he said. “Without a student going through all of this, you’d be clueless … until you go and do all this stuff, you will never be able to build things.”
The feel of the Mechatronics Lab is that there’s a lot going on, and there is. But Block and Sreenivas said that’s what makes it unique.
“This is one amongst many labs … this one is open ended,” Sreenivas said. “But it’s a lot harder to deal with. You never know what’s going to happen … lots of things can go wrong. Teaching this course isn’t an easy job, but [Block] does a fantastic job.”
“I love it, it’s a lot of fun,” Block said, stating that his favorite part of teaching GE 423 is simply seeing what his students can create.