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Robot programming made easy, thanks to ASU

Sun Devil engineering team takes top prize at Intel Cup international robotics competition

lineup of robots on a table
August 12, 2016

Robotics might be the hottest field in the startup world, but the technology has been limited because it’s hard to use. An award-winning engineering project from Arizona State University, however, promises to change that.

“You need a lot of detail before you program a robot,” computer engineering professor Yinong Chen said. “We made it easy.”

Chen’s team of Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering students created a drag-and-drop visual programming language and combined it with a custom robot hardware kit. The operating system is graphic, using icons like Windows or Apple’s IOS, rather than using command codes.

“In general, we can use it to program any robot,” said Chen, a senior lecturer in the School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems EngineeringThe School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering is in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.. “Students connect the pieces like a puzzle.”

The innovation earned a top prize at the Intel Cup in Shanghai this summer. The competition involved 160 teams from 74 universities in nine countries. A total of 13 first-prize awards were given out, with ASU being the only team from outside of China to win one.

Held every two years, the competition is part of Intel’s commitment to education, and it’s designed to showcase the use of embedded systems involving the Chandler, Arizona-based firm’s latest processors. Invitations are extended to top research universities that have ongoing collaborations with Intel, Chen said.

Intel Intelligent Systems Group is one of the largest employers of Fulton engineering graduates, Chen said. The company works closely with ASU to help ensure the university’s computer science and engineering courses are relevant to the industry.

Embedded systems are a combination of computer hardware and software specifically designed for a particular function. They’re used in things such as phones, cameras, airplanes, appliances and toys.

Intel Cup teams are asked to design, implement and document a working prototype of an embedded system, but there are no set parameters on what the system can do.

Aside from the innovative programming language called VIPLE, the ASU team’s project involved Intel boards and middleware software they created themselves.

The development promises new accessibility to robotics, which received record venture capital funding last year, according to the Silicon Valley Business Journal.

Chen drew a comparison to personal computers. A generation ago, few people outside a lab could use a computer. Now, most anyone can jump online.

“If we still had those operating systems, few people would be able to use a computer,” Chen said. “We use a visual programming language.”

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