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FIRST
September 2015
RoboticRoboticSystems

By Ken Johnson

The Android operating system has become ubiquitous in mobile computing and is now the most popular operating system in the world. More tablets and smartphones run on Android than any other operating system.

Is it ironic that the icon representing Android is a robot? Well, maybe not anymore. One of the most exciting applications of the Android operating system is now being launched by the not-for-profit FIRST®, (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). Founded by inventor Dean Kamen, the mission of FIRST is to inspire the next generation of engineers and scientists through robotics competitions around the world - all the while emphasizing Gracious Professionalism® and higher ethos of teamwork and mentorship.

This fall, more than 50,000 FIRST students around the world will use the Android operating system to program these robots for the first time.

The profound impact this will have in how these budding engineers see and apply mobile technology will change their world. App development has largely been a digital-only endeavor. Most apps are developed to give access to data in new ways, play games, and organize our lives. FIRST’s application of the Android operating system in robotics moves app development into a whole new world. Now apps will drive robots.

This will influence how programming is taught, and open up computer science to an entirely new group of students who are interested in the physical application of technology beyond the digital world.

In January 2014 FIRST and Qualcomm started a project using the Snapdragon, Quadcore processing technology to operate custom-built robots in the FIRST® Tech Challenge program. To make this happen, several hurdles had to be overcome. The first one was how to connect standard, off-the-shelf handsets to powerful 12VDC motors, servos, and sensors. The solution was an entirely new Software Development Kit (SDK) allowing Java, the native language of Android, to communicate to electronic modules connected to these devices. Qualcomm and its team of engineers created this SDK, which allows students in the FIRST Tech Challenge program to use new components as well as components they had been using in the past.

The electronic modules required to do this were developed by a new company, Modern Robotics. These modules communicate via USB interface to standard Qualcomm powered handsets from ZTE and Motorola running Android. There are modules for DC drive motors, servos, and sensors. The SDK has integrated support for each of these hardware modules to make it easy for students to write custom programs for their robots.

A second programing option that is available to the students is a special FIRST Tech Challenge version of the App Inventor. The App Inventor is a visual design tool that lets students use a drag and drop interface to design their app, and Google’s Blocky visual programming language to create logic for their app. The FIRST Tech Challenge version of the App Inventor contains the design components needed to communicate with the robot hardware. This version also runs locally on the students’ computers (and does not require a connection to a Cloud-based server).

Robots are controlled both autonomously and via driver control. The communication architecture is based on WiFi Direct. This allows a unique, persistent pairing of driver side and robot side controllers - both standard Android handsets. Students have tactile driver control using standard Logitech gamepads, similar to what they use to play XBox and Playstation.

The use of these powerful, off-the-shelf devices has three primary advantages. First, the technology in a typical Qualcomm handset far exceeds desktop computers of just a few years back. The new FIRST Tech Challenge robotics platform takes that mobile technology and unleashes it in a totally new way. Second, this technology is everywhere. In just about every corner of the globe, Android-based devices exist. This democratizes participation in FIRST and gives students who may otherwise not have the chance, the ability to learn programming. Finally, the technology can be presented in an unintimidating fashion. Android provides a lot of power in mobile devices currently used by students in fun and useful ways. The implementation of these same devices into robotics opens up this field in an inviting and accessible manner - and that’s what the mission of FIRST is all about: showing students that engineering is accessible, important, and world changing.

Ken Johnson is the director of FIRST Tech Challenge at FIRST, a not-for-profit organization. Students in FIRST Tech Challenge (ages 12-18) learn to think like engineers and develop an engineering notebook to document their progress in building and designing a robot. Mentored by professional engineers, teams develop strategies, build robots from a reusable kit of parts, and compete head to head.

For more information or to start a team, visit: http://www.usfirst.org/roboticsprograms/ftc/start-a-team.

 

FIRST
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