Mind / Iron
by Bryan Bergeron, Editor ª
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ERVO FOR THE ROBOT INNOVATOR
6 SERVO 11.2015
The innovators who are responsible for propelling robotics to the next level fall into one of two camps: robotic engineers or robotic experimentalists. Robotic engineers leverage the scientific methods learned in academia to
design, build, and use robots and robotic systems. That’s a tall order for a single
innovator, given that robotic engineering requires fluency in all of the
engineering domains — from software and electrical, to mechanical and often
biomedical engineering. On the other hand, robotic experimentalists leverage
hands-on practical experience in designing and developing next-generation
In my experience, a shop with both experimentalists and engineers is
optimally positioned not only to make the major breakthroughs, but to simply
get things done. For example, I’m fortunate to work with a robotics lab staffed
by both engineers and experimentalists. Recently, in one robot design requiring
an onboard reservoir of water-based liquid, the question was posed whether
internal waterproof casing and cables were required, should some of the liquid
spill internally. The downside of such a provision — added weight, size, and cost
— was significant, but so was the cost of replacing a robot.
The question to answer was whether a leak would cause problems with
exposed microcontroller boards. If so, then waterproof plastic enclosures would
have to be developed for the boards. The engineers in the group discussed — for
hours — methods of determining the resistivity of the fluid, from examining the
ingredients to using various testing devices. One of the experimentalists in the
group simply took a microcontroller board, dunked it in a container of the fluid
for a few seconds, wiped it down, and then applied power. Question answered.
There was no immediate issue, but over several days some of the connector pins
started to oxidize. So, we went with modest waterproofing of the boards and
connectors, and inserted a fluid alarm in the body cavity of the robot.
Sure, the direct experimental approach cost a board, but it also answered
questions not raised by the engineering group such as what were the effects of
rosin and other deposits on the circuit board on conductivity — in the way that
water is an insulator until it picks up salt from the environment.
In another instance, the group was debating the best battery chemistry to
use with the robot. Because we didn’t have the batteries on hand, the
discussion was based on published specifications for various battery packs. The
engineers quickly calculated maximum discharge and charging rates for given
ambient temperatures, and decided on the most appropriate battery chemistry:
a new variant of Lithium-Ion. We have yet to test the batteries on real world
circuits — a task for the experimentalists.
The intuitive grasp of robotics developed by the experimentalists turns out
to be optimum when there is product in hand to work with. The engineers are
best at applying mathematics to product specifications and then ordering only
what they know will work.
Clearly, both the hands-on intuitive perspective and skill set of the
experimentalist and the reasoned methodical analysis of the engineer are
needed to solve different types of design and development challenges. Although
rare, it’s possible for one person to develop skill sets in both camps through
formal education and lots of hands-on work. If you’re passionate about robotics,
I challenge you to become one of these hybrid super developer/inventors. SV
Robotic Engineers vs.