Robot Charlie
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Robots are part of our lives. Some may be more sophisticated than others but they are undoubtedly becoming more commonplace. Drones. Humanoids. Industrial robots. Service robots. Military robots. They come in all shapes and sizes: bipedal, cylindrical or wheeled with eerily human capabilities that allow them to fly, swim, walk and even swarm in a multi-robot system (not to be confused with a robot invasion).

At UBC, students are embracing robotics and engineering innovative opportunities for their education. The many rewards of working with robots are also changing how they experience technology inside — and outside — the classroom.

Explore how these groups of students are interacting with robots on land, at sea and in the air.


Maritime Robotics: UBC Sailbots

At UBC, the Pacific Ocean is an extension of its Vancouver campus and in some cases, its classrooms. Sailing has a long tradition of student participation and the UBC Sailing Club, more than 50 years old with a robust student membership, has close ties to the local sailing community at Jericho beach.

Over the last decade, however, a new kind of maritime activity has emerged in the local waters off the Vancouver campus and led by a unique watercraft — one that has no human at the helm.

Enter the UBC SailBot, a fully automated robotic sailboat designed by its creators, the UBC SailBot team, who together are making waves — and catching strong wins — wherever they set sail.

The UBC SailBot initiative, founded in 2002, is the Engineering student design team that boasts a crew of nearly 50 students. The team competes in the annual International Robotic Sailing Regatta (IRSR) and has, for the second year in a row, scored a perfect 50 out of 50 to win first place at the 2014 IRSR held in Vallejo, California. This victory makes the UBC team the most successful in the competition’s history, ahead of chagrined second-place winners, the US Naval Academy. "I believe the SailBots have been established as a respected student team," says Team Captain Kristoffer Vik Hansen. "We really believe that projects like this will be important for creating the next generation of maritime innovation at UBC."


I believe the Sailbots have been established as a respected student team. We really believe that projects like this will be important for creating the next generation of maritime innovation at UBC.”

— Team Captain Kristoffer Vik Hansen

For their next challenge, the UBC SailBots will take on the Atlantic Ocean. The Microtransat Challenge, a transatlantic race of autonomous sailboats, was created by Dr. Mark Neal of Aberystwyth University in Wales, UK and Dr. Yves Briere of the Institut Supérieure de l’Aéronautique et de l’Espace in Tolouse, France. Yet, since its conception in 2010, no one has completed the Challenge.

The UBC SailBot team plans to launch its contender from Newfoundland in summer 2015 and be the first team to complete the crossing. While the students consider the complex design challenges of keeping their boat lightweight and under the regulated hull length of four metres, their main concern is simple: Will it float? With dedicated teams handling mechanical, electronics, power, software and administration, students will spend up to 15 hours per week ensuring it will.

From the local shores of English Bay to the future coast of Ireland, these students are taking their experience in UBC’s Faculty of Applied Science and employing new thinking in the fields of maritime engineering and marine robotics. But they aren’t doing it alone. Faculty and mentors such as Don Martin, legendary yacht designer, 2000 Olympian and racing competitor, support the team in creating high-performance robotic sailboats.

If you wish to learn more about the team, the challenge, and how you can help, visit UBC Sailbot.

Flybots: UBC UAS Team

Similar to the UBC SailBot crew, the UBC Unmanned Aerial Systems team (UBC UAS) brings together students from across campus with a shared passion for engineering, design and innovation. The UBC UAS creates autonomous UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles) that, among other marketable tasks, can map uncharted territory to create high-resolution digital layouts of the area surveyed.

This year’s team — James Howard (Mechanical Engineering), Alexander Harmsen (Engineering Physics), Chris Borchert (Integrated Engineering), Geoff Lister (Sauder), Adam Erickson (Forestry), Michael Kubik (Electrical & Computer Engineering) and Ersagun Elacmaz (Mechanical Engineering) — represent a diversity of undergrad programs.

While the most common uses of unmanned aviation are military based (think drones), UBC UAS team member James Howard says the technology is evolving and being adapted for civilian use.

“One of the most prominent applications of UASs is aerial photography, whether it be for filmography or mapping,” explains Howard. “One of our main objectives is to develop an end-to-end geo-mapping platform, allowing us to create full 3-D maps of surveyed areas from 2-D images.”

What makes UBC UAS stand out is just how it is advancing systems-design technology industry wide. The focus is on geo-mapping; both of the ‘Thunderbird’ UAVs aircrafts can deftly fly in dense terrain and photographically map nearly any location, providing a complete digital surface model.

Creating a comprehensive UAS requires engineering skills from all disciplines. Students spend anywhere from five to 30 hours a week on the UAV and its support systems, doing everything from programming microprocessors to designing structural members. Beyond the obvious high-level engineering skills required, the students behave like a company, learning core entrepreneurial competencies such as securing funding and marketing. They have been using their knowledge and innovation to work with Asia Tech Drones, a Seychelles-based company that designs, manufactures and produces UAVs for commercial and private use. UBC UAS uses Asia Tech’s airframe as the base for its own UAV design and are providing testing and feedback for the company.

Howard believes that what he has learned over the last two years as a part of UAS has taken his schooling in a direction he never expected:


By being part of the team everyone must think creatively to develop solutions to complicated issues involving many different disciplines of engineering, which is not something that can be learned from a textbook.”

— James Howard, Mechanical Engineering

Coming together from a wide range of disciplines is an opportunity for these students to take their learning beyond the classroom and see their engineering ideas take flight. Despite dangerous wind gusts, nail-biting test flights and even a few crashes, the team is gearing up for the 2015 Unmanned Aerial Systems Student Team Competition to be held in Quebec next April.

MECH 2: Programmed for Learning

Experiential education is often defined as learning that “happens outside the classroom” but in this mechanical engineering class, it’s intentionally designed to happen inside.

The MECH 2 program is a radical departure from conventional curriculum. MECH 2 incorporates content from 15 previously disparate courses into four main courses taken consecutively. The courses include thoughtfully integrated lectures, tutorials, labs, design projects, presentations, field trips and other activities. Integration, coordination and collaboration take place within courses as well as across the entire program.

MECH 2 has won three major awards celebrating the innovation of its unique curriculum: the 2007 Alan Blizzard Award; the 2006 Alfred Scow Award; and the 2005 American Society of Mechanical Engineering Curriculum Innovation Award.

Each year MECH 2 students have two four-week design courses in which they design, build and test robots based on what was learned in the previous term. In 2014, MECH 2 students designed, completed and demonstrated driverless robotic cars. Roughly the size of soccer balls, the robot vehicles navigated several racetracks completely autonomously, guided only by onboard sensors and control systems.

The robots that have been created in these class are not just functional projects–if you ask any of the MECH 2 students, they would likely say the ‘bots’ are among their favourite classmates.


While robots may offer students around the world exceptional learning opportunities, a researcher at UBC is looking closely at the ethical implications of robotics technology. AJung Moon, a doctoral student and Vanier scholar studying human-robot interaction (HRI) and Roboethics at UBC’s Collaborative Advanced Robotics and Intelligent Systems (CARIS) lab, is keenly interested in robotic interactive design.

According to Moon, robotic educational tools now permeate the teaching world, trickling down even to the kindergarten level. As an enabling technology, she says kids are getting excited about robotics: “Once students have the technical skills under their belt, they begin to realize that they can make anything.”

However, cautions Moon, there are potential ethical issues that can arise when robots are incorporated into a learning environment. For example, in South Korea students are receiving English language instructions from a robot. The robot tutor is connected via teleconference to a human teacher outside the country and via the machine’s LCD panel ‘head’, the teacher speaks to the students in a Skype-like exchange. In turn, the students commonly use formal language when replying to the robot as they would to their human teachers.

Anthropomorphism can happen quickly, says Moon. She has noticed that when people meet a robot named ‘Charlie’ in her lab, they commonly refer to it as ‘he’ and go on to ask Moon questions about the robot that indicate they are attributing human characteristics to it.

The recent cross-country trek by hitchBOT (solo, from Halifax to Victoria in about 18 rides) is a recent example of our natural inclination to anthropomorphize robots. HitchBOT was quickly adopted by Canadians and became a star on social media as ‘he’ interacted with people celebrating ‘his’ arrival in their town. One enthralled couple even invited the bucket-body, noodle-armed ‘bot’ to their wedding. On the researcher’s website, hitchBOT speaks in first-person and is purposefully attributed with human qualities to help ensure that the lovable traveller would survive the cross-country trek.

It’s these types of behaviour and interactions that Moon is exploring in her research; she hopes to extend the conversation and findings beyond UBC and into a global network. With that aim, she co-founded the Open Roboethics Initiative, a think tank to examine the ways in which various stakeholders in the robotic industries and technologies can work together to influence ongoing and future interactive robot designs.

As a purpose-design robot meant to reach out and literally interact with humans, Charlie is likely the most well known robot on campus. However, back in the CARIS lab, ‘he’ is just another robot. His fellow robots hold down equally important jobs, such as helping stroke victims recover their mobility or furthering rehabilitation research at the Robotics for Rehabilitation, Exercise and Assessment in Collaborative Healthcare (RREACH) Lab.

If you are a human and interested in interacting with a robot, CARIS is currently looking for volunteers for a variety of research projects.


Engineering in general is a tough discipline to be in, but at the same time I think a lot of people are in it for the sense of reward you get at the end of the day. You had this crazy idea and you made it into reality. In the case of robots, you made something move; it’s doing what you told it to do. The sheer sense of joy of it, probably gets a lot of people hooked.”

— AJung Moon

The Robots are Here

Robots are not confined to laboratories or research studies. Telepresence robots are used by a number of faculties at the university and, according to Moon, these robots not only help facilitate distance learning, they can help support students with medical challenges who are unable to attend classes in person.

In the university of the future, robotic engineering’s reach and innovation is inevitable. At UBC, it will continue to be an area of exploration and achievement, inside and outside the classroom, offering opportunities for students to participate on interdisciplinary teams, test and innovate in programs such as MECH 2 and, with a little robotic help, realize their engineering dreams.