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Andrew's Leap Students Build and Test Stochastic Catoms

Andrew's Leap, CMU's summer enrichment program, provided the setting to enlist the enthusiasms of a group of technically creative high school students in claytronics research by employing their creativity to design and build a new research device - the Stochastic Catom - for testing concepts that are important to understanding the behavior of microscale nano-particles. 

While constructing the robots, the students learned to take shape descriptions, created a new version of an electrostatic latch, gained experience with conductive and insulating materials, studied the mechanics of self-aligning devices, and learned to solder electronic boards.

Seth Goldstein with Andrew's Leap Students 

They also learned to  program a simple state machine using graph grammars, which were based on research into the use of these natural machine languages in robotic self-assembly by Eric Klavins of the University of Washington and Robert Ghrist and David Lipsky of the University of Illinois.  This work gave the students unique insights into the use of macroscale devices to study nanoscale phenomena.


At right, Seth Goldstein explains stochastic motion to Andrew's Leap students (l-to-r) Gabe Sawheny, Nathan Rubright and John Billings.


After creating an ensemble of stochastic catoms, the students tested the devices.  They provided the propulsion to actuate the balloons, thus creating the stochastic motion.  They measured terminal velocities (2.3 meters/sec) and the exchange of momentum from collisions of the lighter than air catoms.  By shifting the placement of individual balloons within the ensemble, they tested the capacity of each robot to determine its location in relation to others. 

By such random moves, each catom determines whether it is in a position to contribute to the predetermined final shape of the ensemble of balloons.  If well positioned, it gives a signal for its latch to clasp the corresponding latch of an adjacent balloon.  If not, it allows random -- or stochastic -- motion to continue its search for a final position that adds to the desired shape of the ensemble of balloons. 

These "student-actuated" modules gave the young roboticists insight into numerous aspects of nanotechnology and robotics by testing electrostatic force and stochastic motion in weightless environments.  Building macroscale devices to analyze microscale phenomena also provided basic experience in robot design and construction, circuit board assembly and programming.    While experimenting with the workshop-assembled balloons, they also learned to establish parameters for the collection of reliable data, as when they tested the effects of shape upon catom velocities.  In these projects, the students helped the Carnegie Mellon-Intel Claytronics Project to launch another important test platform.

John Billings Measures Mylar Sheets 


Left, John Billings, an Andrew's Leap student, prepares to cut a Mylar sheet to create a Stochastic Catom.


The engagement of Andrew's Leap students in creating and testing stochastic catoms also demonstrated another aspect of claytronics research.  Claytronics research has great potential to engage the investigative talents of a new generation of students in some of the most important frontiers of computer science, robotics and nanotechnology.    

When first conceived, the Carnegie Mellon-Intel collaboration for claytronics research proposed not only the development of revolutionary technology for representing information in dynamic, 3-dimensional physical forms.  It also promised a program of study and investigation that would stimulate the highest levels of creative thinking among research scientists and capture the imaginations of new generations of students with the most challenging issues facing computer scientists, roboticists and nanotechnologists.  

Gabe Sawheny and Lauren Milisits 

Illustrating that potential, the summer launch of stochastic helium catoms demonstrated how quickly a team of inquisitive students will develop enthusiasm and concentrate their imaginations to explore new horizons in science and engineering.  


At right, Gabe Sawheny, left, and Lauren Milisits, right, both students in Andrew's Leap, give a newly constructed Stochastic Catom a charge of helium, which enables the balloon to function as a lighter than air platform for investigating the use of random motion in modular robotics. 


The launch of the stochastic balloon project lived up to that potential. It brought together a team of inquisitive high school students who accomplished an important research goal in a project that incited their curiosity about robotics and nanotechnology and provided a rich experience to inform their choices for future study. 

Stimulation of long-term interest in the study of science and technology appeared to be taking root in the students' work on this research project.  It was also communicated in a presentation of their experiences in the Andrew's Leap project.  (See what the students have to say about claytronics research in the video clips here.)

Nathan Rubright 


Left, Nathan Rubright, inspects the electrostatic latch that enables a stochastic balloon to form a link with another modular robot.


More than a summer study program to give these students insight into nanotechnology, their work made an authentic contribution to claytronics research.  

Although the students left Carnegie Mellon after the Andrew's Leap program to continue high school studies, their work on stochastic catoms will continue to play a part in claytronics research. 

Future research will explore self-aligning or alternative adhesion mechanisms for use with Stochastic Catoms actuated by random air currents.  Adhesion mechanisms developed in this research also hold promise for other applications on macroscale (120 cm lattice-based modular robots) and micro-mechanical-electro (MEMS) scale devices.