UW News

November 26, 1997

UW engineering students exploring ‘distant planet’ with robots

For the past three weeks, engineering students at the University of Washington have been exploring the “distant planet” of Sram using remote-controlled robots.

Much like the NASA engineers who used the Sojourner rover to explore Mars this summer, the students programmed software for the mission, built a user interface to remotely control the robots, used wireless technology for communications, operated sensors to collect and transmit data and developed tools for diagnosing problems.

Sram doesn’t have the extremely cold temperatures and low gravity of Mars, but students have had to deal with a time delay in transmitting and receiving messages, equipment failures and other challenges faced by NASA engineers in charge of the Sojourner rover. And though Sram (Mars spelled backwards) is really an undisclosed room on campus, students know nothing about its location or features so it might as well be in outer space.

From mission control in the Electrical Engineering building, the students have fanned their robots out over Sram’s surprisingly smooth surface and discovered a Viking helmet, three sticks of dynamite, several gold coins, a knife and some large DNA molecules. Theories abound on what to make of these discoveries, but the mission will come to a close this week as Professor Robert Albrecht unveils Sram’s location.

“This is the first time we have taught the class this way and the students’ response has been really enthusiastic,” says Albrecht, a professor of electrical engineering. “The Sram mission scenario allowed them to immediately apply the concepts they were learning to a real problem”

Space robotics have gained a lot of attention due to the Sojourner rover’s important role in the recent Mars Pathfinder mission, but robots are being used increasingly in other settings that are dangerous for humans, such as fires, military operations, chemical spills and nuclear accidents.

“Years ago robots were oversold, but the technology is catching up with the promise,” Albrecht says. “Mobile robotics is a rapidly growing field and we want our students to be prepared for it.”

The Sram mission was part of an electrical engineering class, Principles of Mobile Robotics, which attracted undergraduate and graduate students from throughout the College of Engineering. They spent the first five weeks programming and testing the robot’s user interface and sensing systems. Then the robots were beamed overnight to Sram — unlike Pathfinder’s 18-month voyage to Mars.

“We had to beam the robots,” Albrecht explains, “because the class only lasts one quarter. We also have to beam the TA (teaching assistant) there to make repairs on the robots.”

The first stage of the mission included a photo-reconnaissance of Sram’s surface by remotely operating the robots’ video cameras. Next, the students transmitted new software for controlling the camera in order to test their user interfaces and communications systems. Then they began mobile exploration, data collection and analysis. From the data, students have formed mental images of Sram. Soon they’ll see the real thing.


For more information, contact Albrecht at (206) 685-1600 or bob@ee.washington.edu.

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