Experiencing Electronics in High School Through Robot Design

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"The short learning curve to get up and running with NI ELVIS allows our high school students to focus on the electronics concepts learned in the classroom."

- Jacques Le Coupanec, Lycée Colbert

The Challenge:
Providing an opportunity for high school students to gain knowledge and experience with electronics, mechanics, and information technology while improving their English language skills.

The Solution:
Using NI Educational Laboratory Virtual Instrumentation Suite (NI ELVIS) to design and test the electronic board that powers robots for an international robotics competition in an English speaking country.

Jacques Le Coupanec - Lycée Colbert

Teaching Robotics

First year French high school students have taken robotics since 2010. This course meets the orientation needs of students considering careers in science or technology as it introduces them to mechanics, electronics, and information technology by designing and building robots. The course is also taught entirely in English and aims to improve the students’ proficiency in this language. Every year, 25 to 35 students attend this program for four hours per week.

The students enter their robots in a competition in an English speaking country to ensure that they really involve themselves in technical and language activities. The linguistic objective for the students is to be able to explain in English how their robots operate and to justify their technical choices. The students have won 15 awards, including one gold medal at the RoboGames in San Francisco against American and Mexican universities, which meets our expectations for their involvement.

Organizing participation in these competitions can be challenging as the school is committed to proposing school trips that are affordable to all. The students must involve themselves in various activities to raise the funds for their journey such as wrapping gifts, organizing a garage sale, finding funding partners, and more. We are grateful to NI for its financial support for our trip to San Francisco.

Designing Robots

The students must imagine the robots they want to build. They have built a hexapode playing the piano, two chameleons dancing, and five penguins walking and singing. They also created a music band with a flutist, a drummer, a xylophonist, and a guitarist. This year they plan to improve the aesthetic aspect of the designs.

All activities relate to robot development, including computer-aided design of the mechanical architecture, design and test of the electronic system, creation of the mechanical parts, programming the microcontroller, assembly, creation of the electronic boards, and implementation of the choreography. We strive to help high school students master the design, development, and test of devices, but also to understand the underlying concepts used in mechanical, electronic, and software functionality.

Creating the Electronic Board

We power the robots with an electronic board built on the PIC18F4550 microcontroller. From the beginning of the year, we base the electronics courses taught in class on the creation of these boards. We choose the electronic concepts we explore to meet the requirements of the robot design.

The electronics course includes two phases: developing the electronic chip and then integrating the components on the electronic board. NI ELVIS provides the ideal platform in this case. We can introduce the necessary instruments to meet the students’ needs and user friendly GUIs make it easy to use them quickly.

Each team completes their board gradually while improving their skills. The microcontroller and its quartz can then be integrated, and we can start studying the control of the selected devices.

Controlling the Devices

The devices used in our robots control movements, make lighting effects, or produce sounds. We focus on the device interface and limit ourselves to the simplest protocols. NI ELVIS still proves to be an ideal platform since we can use the duplicate features already validated on the board. Its power supplies replace the voltage regulator and the battery while the function generator and digital outputs simulate the processor behavior.

Once they have learned circuitry control for the device, the students weld the components on the boards and develop the software. They program in assembly and use the MPLAB‑X environment. Plug-ins specifically designed for each TP support their learning. Since their programs are validated by simulation, they reprogram the processor in situ and check the whole system for proper operation.

After the students have completed these boards, they still have to deal with the initial devices they want to integrate into their robots. For example, a speaker combined with a counter performs the penguin voice, but the flute of the “bagad d’Asimov” requires a pump powered by a chopper. Students can implement these functions on secondary boards.


Programming the Choreography

At this point, students have learned many concepts in electronics, computer science, and mechanics, but they only know how to control one single device at a time. Their goal is to make penguins walk or to teach a hexapod to play the piano. That is why a more sophisticated system is downloaded onto the boards. This system can control thirty devices in parallel and make the real-time choreography development easier through a USB connection. Students can benefit from a graphical interface on a host station to use the devices they have integrated into their designs effectively.

This year, the students plan to enter their robots in the Delhi RoboGames. You can understand why they are extremely motivated and work very hard.

Author Information:
Jacques Le Coupanec
Lycée Colbert
117, boulevard Léon Blum
56100 Lorient
Tel: + 33 (0)2 97 37 33 55

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