Mid Wales

Aber Uni Robotics Club: Mini-Mars, automated cars and R2-D2

Robots, including a replica of Star Wars droid, R2-D2 Image copyright Aber Uni Robotics Club/BBC
Image caption Aberystwyth Robotics Club is run for school pupils by Stephen Fearn, who has made replicas of film droids

Twenty pupils wanted: must be willing to give up two hours a week of homework time to build robots.

It sounds too good to be true for someone in secondary school, but the advert was posted by Aberystwyth University's Robotics Club at the start of this term.

For three years, Stephen Fearn, of the university's Institute of Mathematics, Physics and Computer Science, has been teaching children from nearby schools to build bots.

And with life-size, remote-control replicas of much-loved sci-fi characters R2-D2, K-9 and a Dalek in his garage, he's a good man for the job.

"It's just inspirational with children," he said. "They are just like sponges, really.

"They come with completely uninhibited imagination on the creative way then want to design and build their robots."

Year 7 pupils from nearby Ysgol Penglais School and Ysgol Gyfun Gymunedol Penweddig School have joined the club in the past, with some previous members also staying on.

They have contributed innovative, original and downright weird machines to its ragtag troupe of creations.

Image copyright Aber Uni Robotics Club
Image caption Robotics club member Owen with the Crawlerbot
Image copyright Aber Uni Robotics Club
Image caption Rock Crawler (left) has a chassis based on a mini-quad bike and Rifi (right) is a bipedal robot which can walk

"I learn every time," Mr Fearn said. "It's the shock factor - to see what these children come up with, as far as ideas and technology and how they are going to apply it to everyday life."

Those involved learn how to solder, how to programme and how to use computer-aided design (CAD) to bring their electric dreams to life.

Among the robots is Joseph, the humanoid with servos which operate his neck, eyes and knuckles - all made using a 3-D printouts from InMoov open-source designs.

There's also Crawlerbot, a caterpillar track robot guided by infrared sensors and Granny Gadget, a converted mobility scooter operated using a tablet computer.

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Media captionAberystwyth University Robotics Club wants 20 more members

Two of the club's members, Marley and Ferdia, won the best example of design award at the Young Rewired State Festival of Code 2015, a technology event for young people, with their ArduDuck creation.

And Mr Fearn thinks the club gives pupils something they cannot get at school.

"We're looking outside the box," he said. "We're not following a curriculum."

In line with the university's work on the ExoMars Rover Mission in 2018, the robot club will be testing its mettle with a "mini-Mars mission" to give members a sense of the serious side of producing automated machines.

Image caption Dizzy the steam punk droid meets his more famous cousin, an R2-D2 replica
Image caption Stephen Fearn - of the Institute of Mathematics, Physics and Computer Science - built Dalek Doris in his spare time

In his spare time, Mr Fearn builds replicas of TV and movie robots and cyborgs, which move around using wheelchair and scooter motors and belt out the screen stars authentic sounds.

Along with his son, Tomos, 18, who studies computer science at the university, they show off the attention-grabbing clones at sci-fi conventions, with any money made going to a juvenile diabetes charity.

His prize attractions include Dalek Doris, which can speak Welsh, fellow Doctor Who character K-9, R2-D2 from Star Wars and Dizzy, an original steam punk cousin of the R2 droid, made with left-over bits.

Image caption Tomos Fearn, 18, has gone from helping at the robot club to studying computer science

"It's just wow factor," Mr Fearn said. "[When you take them to a convention] you end up just smiling all weekend.

"[It's] the reaction of people when they see something like that - any one of those droids coming round the corner.

'Special'

"They're iconic. People instantly recognise them."

Tomos added: "We have done a number of guest photo shoots and we have met a lot of actors who have been involved in both Doctor Who and Star Wars."

So what is it - despite the anxieties robots and artificial intelligence can arouse from modern society - that still draws people's fascination?

Image copyright Lucasfilm/Touchstone Pictures
Image caption Sci-fi robots have become part of the iconography of popular culture

"There's something special about something that can autonomously move on its own," Mr Fearn said.

"Where's the controls? How's it moving? Where's it moving? Certain little things that make it an individual."

With 10 boys and 10 girls set to join the university's club, that sense of wonder at the unfettered possibility robotics represents is in no danger of becoming obsolete.

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By Michael Burgess and Philip John

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