Montana State University

MSU professor, students showing results in robotics

May 3, 2012 -- By Sepp Jannotta, MSU News Service


Montana State University computer science students Sarah Morrison-Smith, left, and Thai Vang work with NAO robots from professor Hunter Lloyd's robotics lab. Lloyd has had a couple of competitive successes this academic year, including five medals at the RoboGames competition in April, and a second-place finish in a programming contest sponsored by Aldebaran Robotics, makers of the NAO robots. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
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The walking, talking, grasping, interacting robots never fail to turn heads.

And when Montana State University professor Hunter Lloyd rolls his own 23-inch-tall NAO - pronounced "now" - robot along in a baby carriage, a gaga crowd typically follows.

With nine of these autonomous, programmable NAO robots residing at the College of Engineering's Computer Science Department there are only 60 or so in the entire United States - MSU courses in robotics are also quite popular.

This spring semester Lloyd's two sections of robotics students helped him program his personal NAO robot - he is named Looney - for event competition at the RoboGames, the annual gathering in the San Francisco Bay area that is the Super Bowl of the robotics world.

"Looney did pretty well," Lloyd said of the April 20-22 event. "The one event he didn't medal in was the dash. He's not really built for speed."

In the end, Lloyd and Looney, and by extension the 32 students taking robotics this spring, celebrated five medals in six events, including one gold, three silvers (two came after tying for first and losing a "playoff") and a bronze.

While it wasn't the across-the-board sweep of gold medals he envisioned - "We're trying to be the Mark Spitz of robotics," he said beforehand - Lloyd said his students can definitely take pride in helping get Looney ready to shine at the RoboGames.

"The best ideas with the best execution were worked into the mix of tasks we programmed Looney to do," Lloyd said, referring to RoboGames events, such as Looney's gold medal event, the lift-and-carry, in which the robots must pick up a container of 10 batteries and walk with them over an uneven surface without falling over. "Looney was the only robot to complete the task."

Igniting a little competitive fire in his classes just makes sense to Lloyd.

"I think it just keeps them on their toes," Lloyd said. "It also mimics what they're going to face when they start working. And it brings the best ideas to the fore."

Lloyd would know. In addition to Looney's stellar performance at RoboGames, he took second place in a programming contest sponsored by Aldebaran Robotics, the Paris-based company that manufactures NAO robots.

Lloyd's entry, the "Legend of Looney," an adventure game in which a lost robot must find its way home, earned him an all-expenses-paid trip to Paris and an upgraded, 1.5 gigahertz "head" for Looney, complete with an allotment of higher resolution cameras to help him more quickly and assuredly interact with his surroundings.

"The trip to Paris was unbelievable," Lloyd said. "We were treated like royalty. They took us out for fantastic meals and toured us all around the city. The people couldn't have been nicer - they were beyond nice."

Having the opportunity to work at Aldebaran for a week was invigorating, Lloyd said, with the three top developers from the contest working to perfect their ideas in the Paris labs. While there, Lloyd worked to perfect the three programming ideas he submitted for the Aldebaran contest: "Legend of Looney;" an application that turns the NAO robot into an alarm clock; and an educational game.

A future where NAO robots go from being educational and research tools for programmers - the units cost roughly $10,000 each - and become more commonplace and available to the public isn't far off, Lloyd said.

And with research showing that interaction with NAO robots offers benefits to people with autism and other disabilities, Lloyd said there is plenty of reason to continue exploring the expanding horizons of robotics.

"It makes sense that our computer science program would invest in this technology," he said. "This is the future. Humanoid robots like this are going to be much more mainstream. And right now it's the cutting edge as far as computer science goes."

Robert Marley, dean of the College of Engineering, agreed that giving students the ability to push the envelope is key.

"We hope to show them what's possible, so they can turn around and show us what's possible," Marley said. "This is one way innovation is spread."

Lloyd said that prospective students are typically wowed by the presence of NAO robots on campus.

"These robots are the ultimate platform for studying artificial intelligence, computer vision algorithms and real-time feedback programming," Lloyd said. "No matter how you look at them, they are serious eye catchers."

And with Lloyd continuing to be part of a select group of developers working with Aldebaran - he estimates there are about 200 worldwide - MSU will continue to show a competitive edge when it comes to humanoid robots.

Taking advantage of that competitive edge is what drove computer science junior James Blazicevich to sink so much of his energy into Lloyd's robotics class.

Blazicevich, a Bozeman native, said he even went so far as to travel to California for the RoboGames to help his career.

"I figured it was a great chance to network with some people," Blazicevich said. "I really think that autonomous humanoid robots will be like smart phones someday. I'm really hoping they'll become a general assistance device, like a subservient toddler that won't mind you telling it to do things."

Contact: Sepp Jannotta, (406) 994-7371, or seppjannotta@montana.edu.