RoboGames 2007: Gold Metal Robot Builder Interview – Chris Farrell (Video)

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We're always fascinated by the way that people are motivated and excited by robotics, so when we recently had the opportunity to interview double RoboGames metal winner, Chris Farrell of Farrell Robotics, we immediately jumped at the chance.

Chris, and his dad - Rob, have done some surprising work developing Oro and Zog - their competitive robots - completely from scratch, to the point that between them they won a total of four metals at RoboGames 2007 in San Francisco last month - Gold and Silver in Wrestling along with Silver and Bronze in the Biped Race.

Chris was kind enough to share their story with us, along with a lot of insight into their motivation and dreams.  


Lem: Have you always been interested in robotics?

Chris: Certainly, I grew up around technology and have always embraced it. My interest started around fourth grade and has grown exponentially ever since.

Lem: Where there any robots that really made a strong impression on you as a child?

Chris: In fourth grade, I stated using the Lego Mindstorms set and created a robot “Forest” which was a treaded robot capable of following a line very tightly.  While this now seems like a very simple accomplishment, I think it was a good place to start.

Lem: Why robots?

Chris: The way I understand it, robots were initially created to aid people and protect them, whether this be the Segway, Roomba, Asimo or I-robot.  While the later is still a sci-fi concept, I believe that it will eventually come.

The idea of having a humanoid robot that can do everything from day-to-day chores to taking care of the elderly is very intriguing.  It is my belief that eventually we (as people) will create a robot capable of carrying out every function of a human.  At some point, people would no longer need to work for survival, robots could accomplish the essential tasks required to keep the economy alive.  One could take time to enjoy hobbies without any stress.

I suppose that this seems too utopian to be realistic, but I do believe that eventually robots will be created that can perform on par or better then a person can.  I would certainly like to engage in a project that would create such a robot, or something leading to such. Whether I accomplish the goal of creating such a robot or not, I enjoy creating something that is real and can respond back to me.  Seeing one’s own creation come alive after a lot of work is a great feeling, only made better by knowing that someday it could help others.

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  Rob, Chris (back), and Jin Sato exchange tips about servos and humanoid design.

Lem: What personal satisfaction or pleasure do you get out of creating and competing with robots?

Chris: Robots are the future; creating something that works gives me a great feeling, and I believe that competition is simply another educational experience that can help add to one’s robot.  As I stated, how could you not enjoy something that is constantly fun, challenges the mind, and can eventually lead to helping others.

Lem: Is there something special that attracted you to humanoids versus wheeled, tracked, or other robots?

Chris: Wheeled and tracked robots can be very useful, but they are usually incapable of completing human tasks.  A humanoid robot can be very diverse - with enough sensors and well-written software it could perhaps be capable of completing any human task (and perhaps do so with greater accuracy).  Building a humanoid robot also offers a great challenge - I have already built several of the other types and it began to get repetitive.  Building a humanoid robot gives me the opportunity to put my karate experience into action as well.

Lem: What about your education and work experience? Do you work in a technology field?

Chris: I graduated from high school less than a week ago (Monday, June 4th) and I am currently 18 - so my work experience is fairly limited.  I plan to attend Georgia Institute of Technology and major in Computer Science as this is the broadest major in which I can study robotics. 

Over the past several summers, I have taught a Lego Mindstorms robotics class at the Southern Maine Community College at a summer program called the Festival of Creative Youth.  I have designed my own course work structure for this job and I believe that it has been very successful.  My hope with this is to encourage others to engage in the robotics community. 

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  Oro, Zog, and Rook's Pawn have some fun with CrabFu's steam robot creations.

Lem: How do your father and his robots fit into the picture?

Chris: My father, Rob is an engineer and was the first person to spark my interest in robotics.  He has taught me many aspects in robotics (mechanical, electrical, computing, etc) and always drove me to do my best.  Over the past year, we have both gotten deep into robotics and work as partners developing our latest creation.  Given his experience he is much better at the programming and electrical aspects of the robot, but I believe we have had a 50/50 split as far as work put into the robots.

Lem: Where do you live (major Metro area, middle of nowhere, or ...? For example, what access do you have to other builders and people with similar interests?

Chris: I live in Gray, Maine ? not exactly the middle of nowhere, but I have no access to other builders.  There might be 2,000 people living here, but I would be surprised if there were more than that.  Needless to say, I cannot buy parts from a local store, so most everything is acquired on the internet including information. I often wish that there were others around with similar interests that I could collaborate with.  I suppose - in a sense - that is what I will get by studying down at Georgia Tech.

Lem: Could you explain a little about Oro and Zog's design and development?

Chris: The Farrell Robotics Humanoid made from DX-117 dynamixels was an idea that started last fall.  Rob ordered two dynamixels and a CM-2 from Tribotix and we started exploring the possibility of building two robots purely from them.  After a month of experimentation, we decided that it would be a wise decision to do so.  Late December we received the full shipment of DX-117s and several different types of brackets (the U-bracket, one to find on the bottom of the servo, and yet another to fit on the side.)  Most of these stock brackets were not used in the latest design.

On December 26 the design and fabrication of the robots started.  It took us one week straight working long hours each day, but by the end of a week we had two complete robots - mechanically at least.  The programming (in C) has been taking place ever since.  

Lem: How are the robots co ntrolled?

Chris: We can control the robots via Bluetooth to our cell phones or computers and also can use a 2.4 GHz wireless Logitech ps2 controller.  We will be using the ps2 controllers for the RoboGames competition coming up shortly.

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  Zog decks Oro - but Oro managed to come back and take the gold.

Lem: We tend to learn from our mistakes. What major mistakes did you make, and what did you learn from them?

Chris: The entire design was my own. I created a 3D model of each bracket before we fabricated a set.  Moreover, I think that I had to re-design every single bracket at least once - some of that was design tweak, and sometimes it was simply to make it easier for the fabricator (which could have been either of us at any given time).  I do not think that having to remake each of these brackets was so much of a mistake as part of the process - we could create a bracket, test it, and then improve upon the design before making more.

We also learned a lot about how much stress some of the brackets could take; while wrestling Oro and Zog (my robot and Rob’s respectively) on of Oro’s arms broke off right at the U-bracket on the shoulder.  We both took the time to go back and put a new set of brackets on, this time we reinforced them with rods of carbon fiber and epoxy in the bends.  That was just a week ago, but no problems yet! 

Lem: What would you do differently for the next generation of the robot?

Chris: I have several ideas about the mechanical structure of the hips and chest; I would like to bring them closer together to reduce any give in the servos.  Rob and I are also planning to add a camera and use Gumstix (or a similar processing unit).  

Lem: What design and CAD/CAM tools do you use?

Chris: I am very accustomed to the Autodesk 3DSMax tool and I use that for most of our parts.  While this is not a final product CAD design program, it makes testing brackets and converting a design to the 3D structure very easy.  I can rig the design right in Max and test everything out before fabricating.  After using Max I would probably choose to use Inventor, another of Autodesk’s programs - it is also pretty easy to use.  

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Matt Bauer shows Rob and Chris the custom software he developed to control Rook's Pawn.

Lem: Fabrication is always a major challenge. How do you manufacture parts for the robot? What is your workshop like?

Chris: After I design the parts on my computer, I print them out on a standard 8x11in paper printer.  We roughly cut out the designs and then glue them onto 12x24in sheets of 5052 .05” extra strength aircraft aluminum.  From there we drill out the screw holes with a drill press.  Most of the cutting for the part is done with a scroll saw and then finishing touches are done with the sanding tool or small files.  They are bent with either a sheet metal brake or a tool steel blade and hammer.  We finish the parts off with sand paper to smooth the edges.  

Lem: Is robotics something you would recommend to others? Why?

Chris: Certainly, this is one of the reasons I teach a class on robotics.  Robots are fun to build and program and they serve a very useful part in everyday life.  How can one ask for anything better: fun to work on + huge benefits?

Lem: What would you like to do next? ROBO-ONE in Japan, build a bigger more powerful robot, explore autonomous operation, ....?

Chris: To be honest, all of those options sound great ? so I will limit my answer to what seems feasible to my bank account for right now 

Rob and I plan to introduce “MI” to our robots over the summer.  This is “Machine Intelligence” as we both believe the term “AI” is a false term.  To have a robot think and react to a situation is a real thing - it doesn’t need to be human to be real.  We will be using Gumstix (or similar processor), a camera, a 5 axis IMU, the compliance of the dynamixels and some other things as sensory input for the robot.  In my time down at Georgia Tech I also plan to work with Henrik Christensen, the head of the robotics program - that should be a great opportunity to learn. 

Lem: Where do you see this sport/hobby leading three or five years down the road? Do you think it will become as popular in the US and Europe as it is in Japan?

Chris: I think that a lot of catching up will be required in the US and Europe before anything major happens anywhere.  Until then I presume companies like Robotis, Kondo, and HiTec will continue improving their stock robots until one is capable of winning the RoboOne competition. 

I believe that within 5 years the US and Europe will have robotics competitions that are as big as the RoboOne is now in Japan.  I think that it will take longer for other countries to catch Japan purely because of a difference in culture.

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  Chris and Rob discussing the event scoring.

Lem: If someone asks you, "What is it good for?", how would you respond?

Chris: While the RoboOne robots cannot aid people at this time, the RoboOne (and similar) competitions are a driving force for robotics technology.  They also offer a gathering for those of us in the robotics community to get together and share ideas ? directly related to RoboOne or not.  Having an event such as this can act as a catalyst to new robotic inventions that can eventually aid the greater community.

Lem: How does Farrell Robotics fit into the bigger picture?

Chris: The goal for Farrell Robotics at present is an educational one.  Since I will be going to college at Georgia Tech and studying robotics, I thought that it would be appropriate for me to start my education early.  We plan to participate the robotics community as much as possible for right now, and perhaps eventually we will form (or join) a group dedicated  to the construction of a humanoid more capable of helping people in daily life (as I previously discussed). 

Lem: Thanks for spending all the time answering all our questions. I'm sure the Robots Dreams will really enjoy and appreciate your story.

Here's the final match that pitted Chris with Oro up against Rob with Zog:

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  Left to right: Rob - Zog (Silver), Chris - Oro (Gold), Matt Bauer - Rook's Pawn (Bronze)

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  Have fun with robotics! Chris certainly does!

You might also enjoy:

  1. Interview with I-Wei Huang, the Amazing Steam Robot Builder (Video)
  2. Robot Builder Profile: Audio Interview with Sean Jefferies
  3. RoboGames 2007 – Stair Climbing (Video)
  4. Humanoid Builders Talk Frankly At RoboGames
  5. RoboGames 2007: What Were They Really Thinking?
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3 comments

  1. Excellent piece guys! :-D

  2. HarryBotter

    Thanks, great interview and video. I missed a good one.

    Harry

  3. chad seeley

    nice job christopher, i went to school with this kid, was always the smartest person to come out of good old GNG, watch for this kid to be owning his own robot factory or building an elevator to the moon someday

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