Virtual lab for robotics goes on net

February 10, 1995

A project just launched at the University of Reading will open the door of a virtual laboratory for robotics students from universities and business around the world.

Netrolab will give access to the latest developments in robotics technology by connecting the actual laboratory at Reading to the Internet.

Students will be able to control up to three mobile robots and their cameras to simulate and run tasks.

The project will work by capturing images from the robots and transmit them via the SuperJANET wide band academic network to student workstations.

Students will operate the robots through a control panel drawn on the right hand side of their PC screen, while robot activity will be seen in a mono image on the left.

Gerard McKee, the project leader, says the initial operations will be fairly simple - movement and gripping objects - but that a second stage will be to allow students run their own programs, particularly artificial intelligence sequences on the robots.

"Eventually, researchers will be able to write a program, transmit it to the laboratory, run it and we will then be able to provide them with a report on its operation," he says.

The system will work through the World Wide Web facility on the net. Reading is creating a web page as an access point.

"Users will be able to book the laboratory for a period. They will go to the web page, fill out a questionnaire outlining the repertoire of experiments they need and we will set up the right environment in the laboratory," Dr McKee says.

He feels the project will appeal to institutions which may not have the necessary funds, around Pounds 100,000, to set up a robotics laboratory of their own.

The project will be available to academic users only at first although eventually, training courses will be available for industry. The Reading team is working closely with Richard Batson at the department of manufacturing engineering and operations management at Nottingham University on this area.

Reading won Pounds 170,000 funding for the three-year project from the joint information systems committee of the Higher Education Funding Council for England under its new technology initiative.

The laboratory is being upgraded with a new robot arm from Affordable Automation Ltd.,worth Pounds 18,000 and Sun Microsystems should provide new high-speed servers.

Dr McKee plans to have a demonstration version of the system ready by the end of this month with the virtual laboratory accessible by October.

His team will also demonstrate the system, complete with real-time video-conferencing, at the Science Museum's exhibition on the future of wide-band networks in April.

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