Lego Mindstorms NXT is more than just a fun and educational toy
it is also a research toolkit that can be used to built fast prototypes and test ideas.
The first time I played with Lego Mindstorms was in my third year at the University of Essex, in England, where I was completing a Bachelor in Computer Science (Robotics and Intelligent Machines). The project was to replicate the work Professor Owen Holland, concerning Stigmergy, Self-Organization, and Sorting in Collective Robotics, using Lego Mindstorms robots.
Robots and insects have two things in common they're simple creatures and they are good at doing simple tasks. By taking inspiration from nature we can use some of the simple tricks we find to make a behaviour seem complex or even intelligent. A good example is that of line-following, a robot can seem to act intelligently by following a line on the floor, but will quickly be anything but smart if it can't detect the line. It's possible to use similar stigmergy tricks in a group, or collective, context that will make it look like the robots are working together, when in fact they are only following very simple if, then rules. The difficult part is to uncover these simple rules that govern co-working and form what some call swarm intelligence. Another word to describe these types of robots that take their design cues from nature is biologically inspired robotics. Unfortunately, I have been unable to locate the original video that shows my first robot in collective action. To see an example that uses the same principles click on the video link below.
Swarms are pretty interesting because they consists of independent units that work together and then something that's called an Emergent behaviour appears; illustrating something the ancient greeks already knew when Aristotles claimed that The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Since learning about this concept of Emergence and the role it plays in developing and controlling swarm technlogoy I became increasingly fascinated by and have also written about it on the New Scientist Technology Blog, however with knowledge there also comes a greater awareness about the consequences and potential misuses of such technology, like in the military's use of drone technology.
Read more about my standpoint on what makes technology dangerous and how I believe the DIY Maker movement is the answer to many of the challenges future generations will face.
During my academic career I have been fortunate to play with many of the newest technologies available at the time. These experiences has sparked my imagination, broadend my perspective and given me clues about where we are heading. It has also provided me with an understanding of the importance of teaching young people about technology.
Working for STEM provided me with an opportunity to do just that. A couple of times a week our team would stock the van full of Lego Mindstorm kits and drive to a selected school in the West Country, in England. We would unload the kits in the class rooms and start the day explaining things like differential drive, line following and showing various sensor types. After the initial introductions the kids would throw themselves into the construction of a robot. The classes were put into different teams that were pitted against each other on the robot roadmap where their robots had to complete various challenges. The schools were usually preparing the kids to take part in the First Lego League competition, which is a great and somewhat overwhelming experience. I have taken part as a judge in several of these competitions in England as well as in Denmark.
Have a look at the First Lego League website to see all the fascinating robot constructions and interesting challenges.