Using a retrofitted robot arm from the 1990s, three East Stroudsburg University computer science students, including Nicholas Khouri, of Whitehall, won the top award in math and computer science for their robotics project at a recent conference on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) for universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.
Under the guidance of Haklin Kimm, Ph.D., professor of computer science, seniors Melissa Schneider, Donald Punger and Khouri have been working for approximately a year on the project, which demonstrates how older parts in robotics can be used with new ones and still work effectively.
“Our goal was to take a very old robot arm and move it with a Super Nintendo controller,” Khouri said. “It was a research idea that explores how we can take legacy pieces of technology and manipulate them with new, modern technology.”
The enterprise, titled “Robot Arm Control Using Nintendo Gamepad with OpenCV and Python,” aims to make the technology more accessible.
“We can create something of equal quality with a more affordable price range,” Khouri said. “And we can also still expand into the realm of new modern technology in robotics.”
The students refitted the robot arm — dubbed Rhino — with a camera so it can discern its surroundings and act on them. The endeavor honed the students’ skills at building the computer hardware and creating the software to run it.
“So right now, it can pick up different color balls. It can identify the colors,” said Schneider, of Dunmore. “It can also pick up, say, a Coca-Cola soda can, completely by itself without being controlled by anything.”
Kimm was especially pleased at how well the students worked together to find solutions to stumbling blocks along the way.
“Being able to work as a team is important in the field,” he said. “They know how to communicate, they know how to find the problem and they know how to solve the problem together.”
Punger, from Greeley, said Kimm was very helpful when the students had questions, and working as a team enabled the students to contribute their strengths.
“If someone is better at one component, like the electrical aspect, somebody is better at the programming and someone else is better at interfacing them together, it lets you figure out what you’re good at and focus on that,” he said.
The students kept that cooperative spirit going despite the inevitable setbacks that come with invention.
“When a board would break, the computer would break, the camera would fall off or a motor stopped working, all these little things were design flaws we had to refine,” Khouri said. “Most of it came down to the software and hardware integration and having them cooperate.”
Kimm and the students see Rhino’s potential.
“By creating a robot that can be driven very effectively with our driver — as opposed to using its own remote control from the ’90s — it expands the arm’s potential to do more modern things,” Khouri said. “So the more that we fine-tune its position and its tracking, the more advanced projects we can do with this setup.”
For example, in a line of a conveyor belt of fruit, it could pick out the rotten fruit.
“As we perfect the arm’s precision, we’ll be able to start looking at how it could be applied to medicine and engineering and all types of industries,” Khouri said.
The STEM conference, held Nov. 2 at Kutztown University, was a great opportunity to network and see what other students in the field are working on, Schneider said. The event attracted more than 140 participants with over 70 presentations from 10 universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, according to Kutztown University mathematics professor Yun Lu, event organizer.
Winning the top math and computer science award was gratifying, but it wasn’t their main motivation, according to Schneider.
“I didn’t go to the conference expecting to win anything — just to share the work we’ve been doing and talk to other students about their own research,” she said. “I was surprised and excited to see our efforts recognized, and it’s certainly motivation to continue working on the project.”
East Stroudsburg University, one of the 14 institutions in the PASSHE, opened in 1893 as East Stroudsburg Normal School. Today, ESU is a comprehensive university in northeastern Pennsylvania offering 58 undergraduate programs, 21 master’s programs and two doctoral programs. More than 6,000 students are enrolled. Nearly 30,000 ESU alumni live in Pennsylvania.