Red Thunder

Members of the Laingsburg robotics team are shown.

LAINGSBURG — A remote-controlled robot, designed, created, programmed and tested by past members of the Laingsburg High School robotics team, is now being used by a Lansing-based virtual reality development company for video camera work.

Current members of the Laingsburg robotics team also got in on presenting the final product to Haptix Studio in Lansing last month.

Paul Garrett, Laingsburg High School teacher and head mentor and founder of the school’s robotics team, Red Thunder Robotics, which is a FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) team, said work on it began this past June. It was a project apart from the regular high school robotics season of 2021, which had just concluded.

“The CEO of Great Lakes Reality Labs/Haptix Studio, Tommy Truong, approached our team and asked us to mobilize their 360 camera through the use of a remote-contolled robot,” Garrett said. “Haptix does a variety of things, one of which was to create virtual tours through buildings including schools for students to remotely access. The task was tedious, as they had to place the camera, move out of sight, take the image, and do it all over again at different points.”

That’s where some members of Red Thunder 7166 team came in.

“Our team discussed the problem, developed an idea, and sent it over to Mr. Truong,” said Garrett. “We spent dozens of hours, between April and September, prototyping, testing and modeling the robot on Fusion 360, a CAD (computer automated design) software provided to us through FIRST.”

So how did Haptix and Laingsburg High School get introduced?

It actually started with former Laingsburg student and robotics member Liam Doyle.

Doyle, now a freshman computer science major at Neumont University in Utah, said it began with a class he was taking at Lansing Community College and a contest hosted by Haptix Studios. He won the contest during the winter break of his senior year at Laingsburg.

“I was introduced to Haptix Studio through LCC,” Doyle said through email last week. “Haptix was offering a class in the 3D modeling software Blender. It was a six-hour class in which we learned the basics of the software. For the contest, I submitted a model of a gong and mallet.”

Doyle won the contest and received a Prusa 3D printer and also received a tour of the studio in Lansing.

“While receiving the tour, I had mentioned to Mr. Truong that I had previous 3D modeling experience through the Laingsburg Robotics team, Red Thunder Robotics (RTR),” Doyle said. “After more explanation of RTR and what I have learned from the team, Mr. Truong asked if we’d be interested in a project and explained to me his idea for a mobilized 360 camera. I later took this idea to Mr. Garrett and I got him into contact with Haptix and this kicked of our collaboration.”

Garrett said that the remote-controlled robot now used by Haptix was basically done through the summer work of three former Laingsburg seniors — Doyle, William Boulton and Ethan Regan.

“The actual people who built it were three people who graduated last year,” Garrett said. “They came back and helped with it this summer.”

Garrett said the three seniors did the vast majority of the work — logging in many hours during the summer.

“The team didn’t help a lot because we lost a lot of seniors who graduated last year,” Garrett said. “And we didn’t have a lot of people who knew a lot about robotics to help so I got pretty the much the seniors.”

Doyle explained his role.

“I was the main force behind 3D modeling the entire robot before manufacturing it,” Doyle said. “On top of modeling the entire robot, I had to design and 3D print several custom parts for the robot. I also helped with assembling it, running electronics, and testing it.”

Added Garrett, “They pretty much did it all. Liam did most of the design on it. Like I pretty much took the design and just built it. I put it together, which is not the hard part. Designing it is really the hard part.”

The team was also helped out by other sources as well, Garrett said.

“Pro MEC Engineering Services Inc., (based in Grand Ledge), substantially aided our efforts by welding the frame and machining the top and bottom plates,” Garrett said.

Added Garrett, “They were able to cut out our parts and weld the actual frame together for us. They are one of our biggest partners and they help us out with that kind of stuff. I really want to give a shout out to them. We did design but they really did the stuff we were not able to do.”

The tan and black robot ended up being approximately 2 feet by 2 feet and approximately six inches tall, said Garrett.

This year’s Laingsburg robotics team then put on a few finishing touches before visiting the Haptix Studios in Lansing on Sept. 24 and presented the company with the robot, which was then attached to the camera, which had been stationed on a tripod.

“We were able to attach their camera, which we had not had access to up until that point, and it ran smoothly,” Garrett said. “We spent the rest of our time playing with remote capture and the VR headsets they had in stock.”

Garrett said the robot solved a problem with using the camera.

“The problem was they have this 360 camera, it’s like a ball, with cameras all around it and what it does is it takes a picture and have you ever been on a website where you can look at 3D inside an apartment? It’s that camera and they wanted to drive it through buildings and take pictures of the buildings on the inside. Kind of like what Google Maps does. And they needed something to move the camera around to do it.”

Truong said the robot has been a hit at the Haptix Studio.

“It was an absolute pleasure working with Mr. Garrett and the robotics team on this project— one of the most talented and enthusiastic groups of students we’ve had,” Truong said. “The purpose of the robot is to conveniently move around our Insta360 Pro 2 360-degree camera to record indoor spaces. As part of our work with Michigan schools, we are building a library of immersive experiences using technologies such as 360 video and virtual reality. The robot was delivered to us on Sept. 24 and looks great! We are currently planning our first video shoot.”

John Allison, Haptix Studio general supervisor, said the results have been great.

“One of the difficulties with this type of camera is that the operator usually has to stay out of its line of sight to avoid being recorded.,” Allison said. “Having a remote control robot like this will allow us to quickly record large environments for 3D and will allow for much smoother camera control than moving it by hand.”

The total cost of creating this remote-controlled robot?

“In total, the robot cost about $1,500 in parts with no cost on their part for labor,” Garrett said.

The hardest part of the whole project?

“We used CAD — we used that to make the robot and we’ve never done that before,” Garrett said. “We always wanted to but we used it as an excuse to force learn it. And we designed that down to every bolt and screw. It was difficult and we’re really happy because now we have this file saved and we can show people, OK, we made this.”

Claire Sanderlin, currently a senior team captain of Red Thunder, explained it a bit more.

“Designing an original robot, on top of having to just learn a whole new software is quite difficult because you have no idea of what you’re going to build — there’s no blueprint for what you’re building,” Sanderlin said. “And then you’re like, ‘I need to figure it out,’ but first I have to figure out how to use this program, so I can figure out how I can build the robot.”

So what is the name of the robot used by Haptix?

“It doesn’t have a name — I think i forgot that part,” Garrett said with a smile.

EPILOGUE

Garrett said that currently there are 17 members of this year’s Laingsburg robotics team.

The high school robotics season starts on the first weekend of January and runs through April or May.

This year’s project for Red Thunder Robotics won’t be known until January, said Garrett.

“We always play on a field that fits inside of a gym,” Garrett said. “But we don’t know what the task is until that very first week of January. So we play games, which are about two minutes long. It could be, shooting a ball, it could be picking up objects, it could be climbing up something and it could be just random stuff that you do.”

Garrett said that means usually there is “a rush” to build a robot that does the needed task in six weeks. After that, there are competitions.

And Sanderlin said it’s a bit more involved than just that.

“It’s always a collaborative game too because you always have three teams competing against each other,” Sanderlin said. “And the teams that you are paired with change every time. So you have to be able to work with other teams that maybe the last round you were going against. And so it’s not just you vs. another robot. It’s three robots vs. three robots.”

Added Garrett, “It is really complex until you do it and it’s a big learning curve. But I guess the big main point is that it’s always a new robot from scratch. And it’s always a different thing we do.”

During the season the team meets after school — often as many as 30-36 hours a week, said Garrett. Teams also go to several high schools around the state. But last year, because of COVID, everything was done at home.

Despite those obstacles, there was still competitions.

“So instead of like a game that you played, we had time trials,” Garrett said. “We’d do something and film it and then we’d upload it to the web site and they were judged just based off of that.”

Last year, the Laingsburg robotics team won the Chairman’s Award.

“It’s the most prestigious award you can win in robotics,” Sanderlin said. “So I mean, that is, above all else, in prestigious is all about your impact on your community, your impact on people around you and just things that you have done that have benefitted others — not necessarily how you’ve done in competition.”

Garrett said that winning the award was very important and said that it shows the impact the team has had on others.

“We do interviews, we have facebook and we have social media,” Garrett said. “We run as a business. So ya, we build a robot every year but we have to raise $20,000, $40,000 every year. We also have to help our community. So we absorb a lot of money but we try to help everyone else around us. So we partnered with this company and built them this robot as an effort to do that … So we want to help other people. They did pay for the actual parts of the robot but we put in all of the labor to build it, design it all of that stuff.”

BENEFITS OF ROBOTICS

Sanderlin said that being a part of the robotics team definitely has its benefits.

“What’s most beneficial for me is just you’re learning skills you actually use in real jobs,” Sanderlin said.

Jaylei Kramer, a Laingsburg sophomore, said it’s a learning experience.

“I think what I like best about it is that I get to learn things, especially with electrical, that I know one day might help me, like a fuse may blow out in my house and I’ll now how to fix it because that’s what we do on the robot. Last year I did more writing than actually being on the robot.”

Kathryn Magyar, a junior, said this is her second year of robotics.

“I joined last year because it was the closest thing I could get to a shop class at our school and it’s something that really interested me.”

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