PSU’s New Robotics Program Aims for the “Big Picture”

The rise of the University’s new makerspace is paralleled by a new PSU discipline that takes full advantage of its capabilities. Electromechanical Technology and Robotics (EMTR) is a bachelor’s program in robotics unlike any previously offered in New Hampshire.

Robotics Professor Martin Hellwig

“We’re going to build really cool stuff!” says Professor Martin Hellwig, who came to PSU this year specifically for the EMTR program. Hellwig began teaching robotics in 2009 and holds a PhD in computer science and master’s degrees in computer science, aviation, and business, and sees applications for all of these disciplines within EMTR.

The four-year program will feature hands-on, kinesthetic learning with courses in electronics, mechanics, microcontrollers, manufacturing technologies, and programming. Students will be able to choose from several electives that allow them to tailor their studies to career interests.

Computer science, electronics, and manufacturing will provide the program’s base, upon which more specialized studies can be built through electives on industrial robotics, scientific robotics, aviation, national security, environmental robotics, and perhaps medical robotics. “Certainly, robotics in aviation and space flight,” says Hellwig, who anticipates that future PSU students may have access to an industrial unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) airframe and might even build one as part of their lab work.

Traditionally, robotics programs were conceived of as largely mechanical endeavors that taught students how to build machines or programming studies that enabled students to operate the machines. In line with the University’s Cluster philosophy of preparing students for a rapidly evolving marketplace, the EMTR program is aiming for the sweet spot between those two career orientations.

“There is a lot of automated industry everywhere, and we need people to understand how these robots work,” explains Hellwig. “We are going to say, ‘This is how robots work on the mechanical level, on the electronic level, and on the programming level.’ For potential employers, that means that our graduates will not only be able to operate a robot, but if something goes wrong, they’ll have a general idea of why.”

He continues, “We’re not going to produce programmers who you can hire to write code for this ‘thing’ being developed, and we’re not going to produce manufacturers who build the thing you want to have. Instead, EMTR program graduates should be people who actually understand the big picture and who might ultimately be in project management positions.”

For example, a new UAV might be needed to detect invasive species entering the White Mountains due to climate change. PSU’s future graduates would have enough understanding of the aviation world’s technology, and will have developed sufficient programming aptitude, so that when they talk with the engineers and the programmers, they’ll understand enough of the two areas to bring the overall concept together.

Additional examples with regional applications include search and rescue operations. UAVs might be used to find missing hikers, and other robots could retrieve individuals from dangerous locations, such as on thin ice.

Robotics 1 is now underway and is being fully taught in the new makerspace. The course features a non-traditional curriculum that combines short lectures, guided hands-on learning, and field visits to industrial sites, as well as the Plymouth Municipal Airport. Students will be designing their own circuits, laser-etching their own circuit boards, and soldering electronic components onto them. They will identify one or more practical problems that they want to solve and build robots from scratch to address those problems. For just one example, students might design a robot with the capability to climb trees in order to trim its branches.

The makerspace’s laser-cutter will be used to build circuit boards and to cut materials. Depending on the needs of individual projects, the plasma cutter may be used as well. Students will bend and weld metals and make extensive use of 3D printing.

This semester will culminate in a campus robot show, when multiple sections of Robotics 1 will present their creations to the campus community and beyond. Depending on what types of robots are built, the event may take place outdoors “rain or shine” or, if not, most likely in the D&M makerspace from whence they sprang. Either way, look to Plymouth Magazine online for details and event coverage.

■  Peter Lee Miller