NEW ROCHELLE, NY -- The Robotics Club at Albert Leonard Middle School received a very different kind of robocall on November 7, and it had the district's aspiring roboticists very excited!
Helen Greiner, a co-founder of the company iRobot - the Fortune 500 company that gave us the Roomba - beamed in for a video conference with students. Greiner is recognized as a Highly Qualified Expert, and advises the United States Army on its robotics programs. She was named a Presidential Ambassador for Global Leadership by President Barack Obama and Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker in 2014.
The roughly 30-minute Q&A session came just as the students are preparing for robotics tournaments in January and February. Questions ranged from how Roomba products are used, to ideas for how their capabilities could be expanded for other applications. Students were also interested in machine learning, and how robots gather and apply knowledge as they function.
Greiner shared stories about the research and development that went into bringing the Roomba to market, including one account of an early test model that used "whiskers" to sense how close it was to walls or furniture, just like a mouse does.
The robotics students shared their ideas for the upcoming tournaments, focused on the general topic "Into Orbit."
They are working on a Chat Bot - an artificial intelligence developed to converse with astronauts to help alleviate feelings of homesickness and other issues related to the isolation they may experience in outer space. Also, Interstellar Truck Stop explores how a truck stop in space - and its robot attendants - may offer interstellar travelers a place to refuel and relax.
Greiner extoled the virtues of "keeping it simple" as they develop their ideas. She also shared thoughts on the future of robotics in the home and beyond, and some very human wisdom in the form of career advice.
"Figure out what you're interested in; what you're passionate about," she said. "Pursue that, because then your career is not a job, it's really just what you love doing".
"It's not every day students get an audience with the co-founder of a leading robotics company," said Robotics Club faculty advisor Stephen May. "We're talking about an internationally renowned roboticist who's had a hand in technology that's affected the daily lives of so many people. How cool, that she spent this time with our students!"
During the teleconference Greiner shared that she, like many of the Albert Leonard students, is a big Star Wars fan. It has been reported that the robot character R2-D2 inspired her toward pursuing a career in robotics. As the session wrapped up, one student asked her if there was anything else she liked about the movie.
"There was a little cleaning robot on the Death Star," she recalled, referencing the "mouse droid" that George Lucas named the MSE-6. "That was a lot like the Roomba."
You can watch the teleconference by clicking here.