Science Journal

04-04-2010 02:01 | Christian Falvey

This month in Science Journal: Czech robots not so different than Czechs themselves, they play football and they pour beer. And what’s little, looks like bamboo and eats up toxins and spits them out elsewhere?

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What a piece of work is a robot – every year more noble in reason and infinite in faculties. You may be surprised to learn that the word “robot” actually comes from Czech via the early 20th century science fiction writer Karel Čapek. He chose the word for his play Rossum’s Universal Robots because “robota” means hard work, or drudgery, in Czech. But the robots on our programme today have other things that hard work on their wires. They play football, among other things, and the Czech team just suffered a stunning defeat to Slovakia 9-0.

Jiří KotzianJiří Kotzian Dr Jiří Kotzian studies robot control systems at the Technical University of Ostrava and was one of the “coaches” I guess you could call them.

So tell me please: the Czech Republic was soundly defeated by Slovakia 9-0, what’s the problem? Do we need a new coach, do we need to recruit new players, get the robots on steroids? Why did we lose?

“There’s no problem, we are using robot soccer as a platform for testing the results of our research. So the main aim is not to win but to test these results. We also played in the European championships in Switzerland and in Austria and we came in sixth out of ten players, so that was quite good. But the Slovaks are the best in Europe, so if we are playing together then we can only lose.”

Of course joking aside, what does football indicate about the performance of the robot?

“Robot soccer indicates whether our system is working. So we are testing how to design and develop embedded systems for robots, how to design entire control systems, advanced methods for controlling a group of robots for example through agents and other technologies. The most important thing is real time behaviour. So all these things are more important than whether we win or lose. Of course we would like to win! But it is not the main aim.”

Photo: www.casopisakademik.czPhoto: www.casopisakademik.cz What do these robots look like? Obviously we’re not talking about two-metre androids with feet and shin guards.

“The robots are very small cubes, approximately 8x8 cm from above, and the maximum height is also 8 cm but some of them are smaller, we have robots that are 6 cm high as well.”

And I believe you have this contest every year so how have the robots changed since last year?

“We have been playing for two or three years, and I have to say that the speed of the robots has changed very dramatically. We started for example with a system response time of about 20 frames per second and now we are playing at 100 frames per second. And the robots also: we started with 1.5 metres per second as the speed of the robot on the playground and the best players now play at 10 metres per second, so everything is much faster.”

Photo: www.casopisakademik.czPhoto: www.casopisakademik.cz Now, not only do Czech robots play football, some of them can now bring you beer while you’re watching it. In fact they can find it, bring it to you and pour it for you thanks to a group of inventive students from Alois Jirásek High School in Litomyšl. They won the International Science and Engineering Fair in the US city of Reno, Nevada, with a design that could do just that.

Joining me in the studio is Marek Votroubek, one of the three who took part in that project.

You are 19 years old, I believe.

“Yeah.”

And do you follow robot football?

“Yeah I watched it once, but it’s not my cup of tea.”

So your robot can find beer, it can bring the beer to you, and it can pour it…

“Yeah, it’s able to automatically find an object and that we have predefined in the computer, and then the robot goes around the room, or some specific space, and searches for the object we want.”

Ok so it doesn’t have to be just beer – it doesn’t even have to be something alcoholic.

“Yes, the beer bottle is used because it’s easy to find, it’s a rotational object that’s the same from all sides.”

Photo: www.robots.glit.czPhoto: www.robots.glit.cz When I first heard about this the image that came to mind was of three students sitting around drinking beer and saying to themselves that it would be great to have a robot that could go and get the next round. Is that how it happened or how did you come up with this idea?

“It was the idea of my friend’s father, because he likes drinking beer, so he had the idea of building something that could find a beer bottle. And it was good because the beer bottle is easy to find. The robot can also find people for example by their faces, but it’s really difficult to calculate the shape of a face and it takes a long time."

It sounds amazing and it sounds funny, but what’s the actual process of a 19-year-old creating a robot like this? How did you go from idea to realisation?

“It started I think four years ago when we were in the USA and we saw a robot with six legs that cost about 60-70 thousand crowns. So when I returned home we built it and it cost around 600 or 700 crowns only. And the TV and newspapers did some interviews with us and that was how our career of building robots started.”

But that was before the beer robot.

“Yeah that was before.”

So how does this robot actually work? What are its components and how big is it?

Photo: www.robots.glit.czPhoto: www.robots.glit.cz “It’s 110 cm long, 60 cm wide and it weighs 27 kilos.”

And I imagine it cost you a little more than six or 700 crowns.

“Yeah, it cost 25,000 for all the parts and equipment.”

And what the jury in Reno say about your robot, what was their reaction to it?

“They were really excited because they hadn’t seen such a big and sophisticated robot, and they were surprised that students from an ordinary high school could create something so difficult.”

If you want to keep up with what young Marek Votroubek and his team are doing next, keep your eye on robots.glit.cz.

 

It’s not all fun and games in Czech science of course, there are new discoveries all the time, oftentimes thanks to the cutting-edge work of scientists at Brno’s Masaryk University. What they’ve come up with now is a chemical compound that they’ve called bambusiril because of its bamboo-like appearance. The tube-shaped compound can pick up certain compounds into its hollow interior and release them elsewhere, which could be of very great benefit to medicine and other industries. Joining me on the line from Masaryk University is Vladimír Šindelář, part of the team that created the compound.

You’ve created this beautiful new word “bambusuril”, what can you tell me about it, what is it exactly?

Bambusuril, photo: www.ct24.czBambusuril, photo: www.ct24.cz “It’s a small molecule which looks like a small tube, and because the shape is similar to the bamboo stem we call it ‘bambusuril’. The –uril comes from urea, because the basis building block for the synthesis of this micro-cycle is urea.”

As I understand it, it has quite a lot of potential uses.

“Well we kind of speculate about the use of bambusuril because we have just prepared it and are studying the properties of it. But we believe it could be put to medical use and analysis of food. For example, in medicine we can use it for the construction of sensors that can detect certain compounds, for example some diseases can be detected by increasing the content of sodium chloride in the blood. And bambusuril can detect a concentration of sodium chloride in the blood and we can then say that a person has that disease or does not.”

How long have you been working on this and with whom? Is it only a Czech project?

“Yes, yes, it is only our research group that has developed this molecule. We started thinking about it about five years ago, but we have only really been working on it for about two or three years.”

And it’s also not the kind of thing that you can expect to have finished at some point in the future, is it; you can always find, I assume, newer and newer uses.

“Yes, that’s why I hesitate to talk about future application, because it’s possible that we will find some new area where bambusuril can be applied. And we are also trying to modify the structure, and based on how we can modify the structure we can also modify the properties and some other use may be found.”

That was Vladimír Šindelář of Masaryk University in Brno. And that’s all the science we have time for today. Thanks to all those who were able to join us for the programme and to you for listening, and I hope you’ll tune in to Science Journal this time next month.

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