Robotics in Coeur d’Alene
The Robotics program in Coeur d’Alene is growing. We are building the Vandal Manufacturing Automation Laboratory (VMAL) to train Computer Scientists in programming robotic using modern software design and with the use of Artificial Intelligence programming techniques for machine vision and sensor data analysis. Our program is designed to be very much a complement to a mechanical engineering based program, with our emphasis on not building robots, but rather programming robots and building software systems designed for tough manufacturing and vision problems. We have both mobile robots and full size manufacturing robots. We have a heavy emphasis on the use of embedded systems in robotics.
We design our robotics software primarily in python using the ROS2 (Robot Operating System2) robotics framework. This is a multi-vendor compatible package that allows the coordination of numerous sources of data feeding into the robot control software such as cameras, distance, vibration and many other sensors. Then we apply machine learning programs (where appropriate) to accomplish things like task planning, motion execution and the all important inclusion of feedback into the process.
While our high-level programming is done using Python, we use a significant amount of class time learning about the traditional (and still very much in use) robotics programming paradigm, PLC programming. We are using actual PLC controllers with a complex model factory and also with an innovative manufacturing line simulator called Factory I/O.
We are initiating undergraduate and graduate Robotic Engineering certificates in 2022, consisting of Advanced Robotics I, Advanced Robotics II and selections of other courses from Real-Time Operating Systems, PLC Programming, Machine Vision, Artificial Intelligence, Mechanical Engineering and Data Science Courses.
Our VMAL is located in the Venture Lab inside the Hedlund Building at North Idaho College. Inside the lab is “Larry”, a 784-pound FANUC 50iB materials handling robot. He is housed inside a 17’ x 17’ cage because he is very strong and fast. Upstairs in the same building, the U of I Coeur d’Alene Computer Science space is home to 5 mobile TurtleBot robots, two smaller mechanical arms and Baxter, a two-armed general purpose collaborative robot. We also use Raspberry Pi and Arduino systems to build sensors and actuators as part of the class projects.
Thanks to the generosity of Boeing and the Jacklin family we have raised in money and hardware $500,000 of the $800,000 needed to fully fund the VMAL project. We are actively looking for sources of the remaining $300,000.
Our second major area of robotics research and education is in the use of robotics for autonomous geolocated underwater environmental sensing (submarines) in lakes and rivers in North Idaho. The Catfish project consists of three submarines, one of which can dive to 1200 feet. We have three graduate students and several undergraduate students working on this program. The program has been sponsored by private donors, the USGS, the Idaho Water Resources Institute, and help from the US Naval base in Bayview, Idaho with the goal of automating environmental data gathering. We recently began our first sequence of autonomous dives and are currently integrating a fiber optic gyroscope and a Doppler sonar system for maintaining geolocation data in the absence of continuous GPS data (GPS doesn’t work 200 feet down in the lake, or even 2 feet below the surface).
We currently have a strong undergraduate enrollment in Robotics and are hosting both Masters and PhD students in our program.