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Robots Invade Santa Monica

By Phil Wayne
Staff Writer

November 29 -- Though not yet able to moonwalk like Michael Jackson, ER1 -- sunglasses and all -- still managed to perform quite a "dance." Moving forwards and backwards, in triangles and squares, this hip robot displayed more than a few fancy steps. And the audience was impressed.

Dr. Harold Rogler staged the fascinating robotic display for the Santa Monica College computer club, ComTech, as a preview of a brand new course, "Introduction to Mobile Robots," which will debut in Spring 2005 at the college.

Though robotics is already being taught at the UC and CSU campuses, as well as some private universities, Santa Monica College is the first community college in California to offer a course in mobile robots, Rogler said.

It is a chance for students to enter a tremendous growth field that offers new job possibilities for programmers and computer scientists, robotics enthusiasts said.

"Without the programmer, robots can't come to life," said Steven Yah, president of the SMC computer club. "We are in a new era where many jobs require robotics. The robotics field is growing real fast, and it's a huge opportunity."

Photos by Phil Wayne

Rogler agrees. "Robotics today is like the computer industry was in 1980. The design, manufacture, sales, servicing and upgrading of robots will become huge business."

The applications of robotics are no longer restricted to defense projects with price tags in the million of dollars. Robots are an increasing part of daily life.

"Many large-scale projects costing tens to hundreds of millions for robotic airplanes, submarines, spacecraft, and bipedal robots are now being developed," Rogler said, "and hundreds of thousands of affordable service robots like vacuums are now entering homes.

"Robots hidden from our everyday eyes build our cars, inspect our sewers (and) provide surveillance for troops in combat," Rogler said. "They move materials in factories and hospitals. Prosthetic devices and exoskeletons give humans super strength."

That is why Rogler, Yah, and Dr. Abbas Dehkhoda, who teaches programming languages, are all happy to see robotics added to the SMC curricula. Rogler gives credit to the SMC Curriculum Committee, which "sees that robotics is growing rapidly and has approved this bold new step at SMC."

ER1 will be the star of the new class. Consisting of a metal frame, wheels, actuators, cameras, a processor, memory and a host of other components, this able "bot" boasts brains as well as good looks and fancy moves. With the help of Siavash Jafari, an independent study student, Rogler constructed ER1, improvising as needed.

In addition to their functional value, robots -- which "mimic human motion, speech and intelligence" -- seem to possess a strong charisma, Yah said.

This was certainly in evidence at the presentation of ER1. Rogler presented a succession of objects to the robot, from CD jackets and book covers to currency and text.

Matching the optical input to images stored in its laptop "brain," the robot correctly identified and spoke the name of each object. When Rogler held up a sheet of yellow paper that represents "Follow Me" to ER1, it dutifully tracked its "master" around the room.

Harold Rogler showcases ER1

The demonstration was not without a few minor hiccups, however, indicating that some bugs still need to be worked out. Correcting glitches is part of the game, though, and learning to rectify such problems is just one of many things that Rogler will teach to those enrolled in the class.

Dehkhoda, the programming instructor, sees a bright future for robotics at SMC.

"I would like to see that some of our programming language courses use these robots to do different assignments on," Dehkhoda said. "We can actually shift the target from PC to robots."

He also looks forward to a robotics club.

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