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Robot Dog Provides New Learning Experience for Robotics Program

    by Emilie Jenson, Public Information Office
    Posted on 3/13/2024

The Iowa Central Robotics Program is the first in the state to implement one of the latest pieces of technology into its curriculum which can be used to assist a variety of fields.

“Zeus,” a new robotic dog, arrived on campus in November and Robotics students, along with their instructor, Thad Cooper, Robotics Program coordinator, have been working on programming the dog and testing out its capabilities.

“Right now, we are the only community college in Iowa with a robotic dog,” Cooper said.

Cooper recently took Zeus to the State Capitol Building for Community College on the Hill Day and the dog garnered quite a bit of attention and interest.

“It was great to see other community colleges in the state stopping at our booth to talk to us about robotics,” said Cooper.

The idea of implementing a robotic dog into the curriculum was more than a year in the making, according to Cooper. A visit from a sales rep with vendor Moss Enterprises, to the robotics classroom in the Spring of 2023 to share how robotic dogs can be used in industry first introduced Robotics instructors to the idea.  All it took from there was a flyer on the Stokes Robotics robotic dog to convince Cooper that it would be a great learning tool for the program and he went to work to include it in the program’s tech plan request.

“We added it to the tech plan request with the hope that our fleet will grow in the future,” he said. “One unit and all of its curriculum and training is around $30,000.”

During a visit to the Automation Lab from local employer Nestle Purina, in the Fall of 2023, Jennifer Leiting stated that Nestle plans to implement a robotic dog in their Fort Dodge facility.  Their dog will patrol the plant in the evenings to detect air leaks and document the location of each, so they can be repaired by the maintenance staff at a later time.  “We hadn’t really considered that concept until Nestle Purina mentioned it,” said Cooper.

Zeus is a Stokes Robotics “Unitree” dog and comes equipped with cameras that allow the operator to see forward and rear facing views from the dog’s point of view and is equipped with a belly camera to give the controller the ability to see things from the underside of the robot. He has AI skeletal recognition abilities that allow the dog to identify humans.

“It has the ability to recognize skeletal features and provide a 3D layout of an area through Lidar,” said Cooper. “They can differentiate between a human and a mannequin because it would have no skeleton.”

The robotic dog also responds to a tracking beacon which allows it to walk beside humans.  While walking beside a person, it can avoid obstacles and wait for the person to avoid the same obstacles, then resumes its position next to the human.  It also has the ability to roll over, right itself, and recover from a fall.

Zeus has a 3D Lidar module that can be mounted to its back, providing it with the capability to map out a specific area so that the dog knows exactly where to go and what to avoid.

“Lidar modules provide us with the ability to layout a facility in 3-D, in a matter of minutes, so that the dog will walk that path through the facility,” Cooper said. “It maps the area so the dog knows where to go. In automatic mode it can run that set path and the Lidar will help it identify and avoid obstacles.”

Zeus provides students experience in another programming language, on top of the robotic arms, PLC’s, and HMI’s.  The dog can be programmed to respond to multiple commands beyond its basic RC mode.

“We just recently finished a second series of training with Stokes Robotics,” said Cooper. “The students will be able to sit down and program the dog and gain good experience with C++ and Python program languages.  They already gain experience in structured text, function block, and ladder logic programming with our existing equipment.  This simply adds another aspect to our program, providing students with even more capabilities to take with them to the skilled trades workforce.”

Elijah Yates, a second-year robotics student from Fort Dodge said it has been a great learning experience helping to program the dog.

“It’s been a pretty awesome experience,” Yates said. “I set it up to do different things and it is neat to see how it can track people and adapt to its environment.”

Yates also said the unique opportunity to work with Zeus will be beneficial as he transitions to the University of Northern Iowa to achieve his bachelor’s degree in their Automation Engineering program.

“It has taught me a lot of skills I know I will get to use in the future,” said Yates. “Being able to come to college and use this advanced form of robotics has really opened my eyes to the career field.”

“It has been really cool learning the ins and outs of robotics,” said second-year student Josh Kenkel. “This is our first semester with Zeus, but it has been fun seeing all that it is capable of and we are only just getting tapped into it.”

Collin Fox has run the dog a few times and said it presents a multitude of possibilities as they continue to program it in the future.

“It is pretty awesome that no other school has anything like it,” said Fox. “We can get creative with what we do, and the dog’s possibilities are endless. It’s been fun to take around campus and everyone just stops and looks at him in awe.”

Cooper hopes that in the future Iowa Central might be able to certify people from various industries in the use of the Stokes Robotics quadruped.

“Our manufacturer, Stokes Robotics, is getting into education and hopes to get one (robot) into every community college in the state so that we might be able to bring people in from different companies and get them certified.”



Robot Dog Provides New Learning Experience for Robotics Program

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