Philanthropy animates mechatronics lab

8 May 2014


Mechatronic students in the  new Raymond Kirby Robotics Teaching Laboratory
Mechatronic students in the new Raymond Kirby Robotics Teaching Laboratory

A new-look, state-of-the-art laboratory that will enhance the learning experience of more than 240 mechatronics students at the University of Sydney was be officially opened today.

The mechatronics laboratory which is outfitted with the latest robotic and microcontroller-based hardware and software, was made possible by a philanthropic gift from the James N. Kirby Foundation. Retired Chair of the Foundation, Mr Raymond Kirby AO, is an alumnus of the University.

Mr Kirby who graduated with a double degree, Bachelor of Engineering (Mechanical and Electrical) in an era of slide rules has had a lifelong desire to foster Australian innovation and business. 

"A key objective of the James N Kirby Foundation is to support technical education projects that assist young Australians achieve their highest standard," says his daughter, Virginia McClelland.

"The double degree that Mr Kirby graduated with is the direct precursor of the Mechatronic Engineering degree taken by today's students," says Associate Professor David Rye, the degree coordinator.

"Mechatronic engineering is a multidisciplinary engineering field that provides the foundation for robotics, automation and the 'intelligent' products and devices that are ubiquitous in society today. It draws on mechanical engineering, electronic and electrical engineering, systems and control engineering as well as computer science," explains Associate Professor Rye, himself an expert in humanoid robotics.

"Mechatronic engineers are combining mechanisms, sensors, computers and software to create simpler, more adaptable, economical and reliable autonomous systems, both large and small."

The centrepiece of the new 'Raymond Kirby Robotics Teaching Laboratory' is a Baxter humanoid robot - one of the first of its kind in Australia. Unlike current industrial robots, which must be isolated from people for their safety, Baxter is designed to be intrinsically safe when working directly with people. The robot uses sonar sensors and cameras to monitor the space around itself.

Associate Professor Rye says the user-friendly 180cm humanoid robot will be an excellent resource for mechatronic engineering students learning how to program robots for industrial and human-interactive tasks.

"The robot uses open-source software and, since it is designed to work alongside people, offers several new programming paradigms as well as all the methods used to program older robots," says Associate Professor Rye.

"Part of the students' coursework will be designing the algorithms that will make this robot perform tasks in cooperation with people," he says.

The laboratory also includes cutting edge technology that will allow mechatronics students to use the latest developments in embedded microcontroller systems and control systems.

The gift from the James N. Kirby Foundation is contributing to INSPIRED — the Campaign to support the University of Sydney, which aims to raise $600 million from 40,000 supporters to fund the pursuit of ideas that will shape the world in which we live. Find out more about philanthropic support and read more inspiring stories on the INSPIRED website.

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