Taylor-Made: Changing the world, one swarm at a time


This year’s Engineering Open House keynote speaker was Dr. James McLurkin, a professor in the Department of Computer Science at Rice University. He researches swarm robotics, which involves many autonomous robots acting in a group and communicating with each other. He lectures around the world and won the Lemelson-MIT student prize as an undergraduate at MIT.

McLurkin talked about creativity in engineering and presented his five steps for how to come up with a successful idea:

  1. Make a plan
  2. Spend money
  3. Embrace failure
  4. Get help
  5. Work hard, play hard (I will explain this one)

About the robots: They’re little cubes about four inches in length. They can move in formations as well as a straight line, and can be split into groups that perform different tasks (for example, one group circles around an object while another group explores). When they talk to each other, they talk in the C scale—and you can actually hear notes as they communicate. They have a one-meter radius of communication, so messages often travel through the group.

Dr. James McLurkin demonstrates his swarm robots.
Dr. James McLurkin demonstrates his swarm robots.
A summary of what else McLurkin presented: There are three "D’s" of robotics: dangerous, dirty, and dull. These describe the types of tasks for which robots are used. The future of swarm robotics could include robots finding hot spots in forest fires, searching for and pulling survivors out of the rubble after an earthquake, and exploring Mars, to name a few. Robots are designed off of nature. For example, cockroaches were studied in order to learn about recoil reflexes. A tiny cannon was literally strapped on the back of a cockroach and then shot off. McLurkin showed us a video of this—the first time I’ve ever seen a bug walking around with a cannon.

The doc is a funny guy. He had everyone laughing often. "So just remember: if you give engineers pizza, they’ll show up and do anything," he said at the end of one story. He has the robots programmed so that they play songs when they move, anything from patriotic marches to the Super Mario music. Watching them skirt around and sometimes bump into each other while squeaking out very high pitched renditions was pretty entertaining.

McLurkin’s advice for all of us: "Find what you truly like to do, and do more of it." This is what he means by work hard, play hard. Whatever you enjoy doing, whatever you play at, you can find a way to turn it into your career. That was the main message of his presentation. He ended with a quote (origin unknown) that summarizes this attitude:

"A master in the art of life draws no sharp distinction between work and play."

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