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Electrical and Computer Engineering

Open Arms to Open-Source Robotics

2017.Herring.ThomasCongratulations to Thomas Herring, freshman in electrical and computer engineering, on winning the Freshman Design Excellence Award at the 2017 OEDK Showcase! His project, Lightweight Robotic Scanning and Control Platform (LRSCP), is an educational robotics platform that can teach students the standard operating system that most robots run on.

“It’s a complicated software package designed for computer scientists and software engineers,” Herring explained. “It’s not easy for the casual user who wants to use it for a smaller scale project, but the system is highly applicable to many situations and really useful for doing complicated things.”

Organizations generally buy an expensive robotic arm that is pre-programmed to perform certain functions, Herring said. These robotic arms can be high quality, but difficult to tailor to perform different functions. Herring and the LRSCP team solved the issue by making an open-source, inexpensive platform to start testing and moving things.

Should the project be continued, Herring said the next steps would be adding more motors to make the arm more capable, then getting it into a high school classroom and teaching students how to use it to help them build other things, such as autonomous cars or humanoid robots.

The Toronto native has demonstrated a passion for robotics and mechanical engineering, taking on a new design project each of the past four years. His high school robotics team also won the world championships in 2013. But he didn’t stumble upon ECE until he arrived at Rice.

“I had done a lot of robotics in high school and knew I enjoyed mechanical engineering. I thought that was what I wanted to do,” he said.

He tested the waters last summer by working in industry and designing sensor casings. While he liked the hands-on opportunity, he was interested in the software work his friends were doing as well.

“ECE is great because I can branch between the three core engineering disciplines,” he explained. “I can do some computer engineering, some mechanical, and get practical training in the OEDK and can balance between all three.”

Herring said he appreciates the opportunities in robotics that Rice affords. “I’m taking lots of robotics courses, and will be taking COMP 450 as a sophomore, something I would not be able to do at other schools.”

He was also glad to find the OEDK. “I had done some research and found I really wanted to know how you could build a large robot, such as a humanoid or robotic car.” He decided to bring his idea to the OEDK, applying and receiving a maker grant to perform this research. “It was difficult,” he said. “There was a lot I had to teach myself, and this isn’t really something that is done often, so there is not a lot of community support for it.”

Herring will continue with robotics through a research position in Dr. Lydia Kavraki’s lab. He is also interested in becoming a member of a VIP (Vertically Integrated Projects) team and is already in the process of building an autonomous radio-controlled car. He hopes to go to graduate school for research-level advanced robotics, then possibly starting a business.

He encourages students interested in ECE to reach out to faculty.

“For freshmen, you have some time to decide if this is what you want to do,” he said. “The support network has been fantastic, and faculty have been welcoming and willing to advise me. I like ECE because you earn a very relevant degree that gives you the freedom to work in many different fields. It’s a really nice balance in terms of skills acquired – ELECs can tackle a lot of problems.”

-Jennifer Hunter