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No Bark, All Byte

UCF’s School of Modeling, Simulation and Training welcomed its newest research tool: a four-legged robot built with some of the world’s most advanced technology. 

The most sophisticated robotic innovations are no longer confined to factories and classified labs — one now roams UCF’s campus. This past summer, UCF’s School of Modeling, Simulation and Training (SMST) secured one of the most renowned semiautonomous robots — affording them the opportunity to bring students, faculty and new technology together for innovative research and teaching.

“We wanted something that can really help to promote that transdisciplinary culture that we want at the SMST [and across UCF],” says Crystal Maraj, research assistant professor at UCF’s Institute for Simulation and Training (IST), which is housed in the SMST.

The robot’s four legs and short stature immediately raise eyebrows, resembling a dog at first glance. Manufactured by robotics technology leader Boston Dynamics, “Spot the Agile Mobile Robot” is designed to sense and avoid obstacles, collect limitless data and map its environment — all while trotting, hopping and climbing across various terrains.

While 1,000 of these black-and-gold robotic dogs are used in more than 35 countries, UCF’s robot features a custom circuit-patterned wrap and Pegasus emblem. Since its colors resemble an actual tape measure, and most of its function involves data gathering and measuring, renaming the robotic dog TapeMeasure was a no-brainer for IST faculty.

Since IST’s creation in 1982, researchers have produced robotics projects for healthcare, manufacturing, the military and more. TapeMeasure is a continuation of their robotics technology exploration, but differs from previous developments with its focus on end-user experiences.

SMST students and members of the Robotics Club of Central Florida will have first access to TapeMeasure, with prioritization of undergraduates to get involved and build their skills early, Maraj says. The collaboration with the robotics club is ideal given its history as a lab formerly based at the SMST. Today, the award-winning student organization has more than 60 members who are creating innovative and competitive robots that push the boundaries of automation and robust designs.

“This is definitely the first [robot] of its kind for us,” says Dwight Howard II, mechanical engineering student and vice president of the robotics club. “[TapeMeasure] is a good way for students [at any skill level] to explore programming design and work on a full platform from the beginning.”

Learn More About TapeMeasure

Not Your Typical Pet

In its base state, the 70-pound doglike robot walks, navigates areas, climbs up and down stairs, maneuvers around objects and gets up if knocked over. Preprogrammed with Python coding, it can travel to designated locations — avoiding obstacles along the way — to capture photos with its 360-degree camera, then return on its own to share its findings. An Android tablet with physical and digital joystick options is used to control TapeMeasure, which Howard says is a new method of operation for the robotics club.

Customizable Platform

A core input-output processor allows for the addition of sensors that increase the robotic dog’s collection of autonomous tasks. IST Associate Professor Joseph Kider is leading a project in collaboration with the robotics club to build a suite of environmental sensors. When paired with detection sensors, the environmental sensors can map out buildings and areas on UCF’s campus to display their safety conditions, Howard says.

Research Potential

Currently, teams are working through TapeMeasure’s functions and capabilities before determining how it can drive research. One example involves mounting a laser scanner to the robotic dog, which makes gathering data from historical buildings more efficient for Research Associate Professor Lori Walters. This also helps broaden access to scanning locations that otherwise couldn’t be reached or are potentially unsafe.

Industry Benefits

TapeMeasure will cultivate students to fill the talent pipeline for various industries while also strengthening UCF’s industry partnerships, Maraj says. Although companies may have the money to purchase this advanced robotic technology for their own use, having it at UCF uniquely positions the university to share its knowledge from TapeMeasure-assisted research projects to better serve key industries, like manufacturing and healthcare.