Imagine a robot, remotely controlled by a light beam. That is exactly what TU Delft researchers are currently developing. But what is the purpose for such an application? And how will future society benefit from this technology?
The world is digitalising at a rapid pace. We already encounter a lack of technically educated and skilled employees. In order to narrow the gap between the need and availability, we need to raise children’s interest for technology related education. And what better method than to ask young people how to make technology attractive and comprehensible? Marco Zuniga, Associate Professor at TU Delft, and two of his PhD students, Miguel Chavez and Talia Xu, came up with the idea of recruiting Peruvian students to come up with some interesting solutions to interest children in wireless communication technologies . Coming from Peru himself, he thought it would be a great opportunity in different ways. Through an education programme called RePu, students can gain experience in scientific laboratories in Peru as well as abroad.
A total of sixteen very promising students were selected from the 500 applications, for different assignments in universities across Europe. TU Delft selected two talented and enthusiastic students:
Kiara Micaela Rodriguez Bautista (23) and Daniel Tomas Menacho Ordoñez (24). Marco explains the background of their assignment: “At the beginning of the year 2000, only 5% of the world population was connected to internet and we used wires. Nowadays, more than 60% of the world population is connected using mainly wireless technologies. Wireless communication is a fundamental pillar of modern societies and over the last 100 years most of our wireless communication has relied on radio waves: Cellular, WiFi, BLE, LoRa, you name it. These technologies are valuable, but the radio spectrum is getting congested because it is our only means of communication. Compare it to having a single congested highway. From a physics perspective radio waves and light waves are similar. This means that light waves can also be used for wireless communication, which is good because it is a free and empty spectrum. So we can add a wide, empty highway to the side of the narrower and more congested radio highway”.
Humans cannot see radio waves, but we can see light waves. So, Marco’s team thought: if we want to teach kids how wireless communication works and how to use light to complement radio technologies, we should literally show them communication with light waves. “Starting with the idea of using a flashlight to communicate with another person – similar to using morse codes at night – we want to explain how the same principle is used to transmit data with light. Think of videos, audio, or text. We believe that kids seeing the wireless link with light will help with learning, as opposed to using invisible radio links.” So, Daniel and Kiara were assigned to developing something attractive to youngsters, with a remote control that uses a light beam. “I didn’t know anything about light or how to tell kids about light. So I came up with the movie about Iron Man”, says Daniel, referring to the famous superhero. “He has the light in his hand. This is something kids will like and recognise. They will instantly feel connected to this technology. And they can control a robot, which makes the experience interactive. I tried to design different remote controls in 3D. And I thought we should use part of the arm, instead of something that you hold in your hand. I designed a first prototype which is basically a sleeve around your arm and 3D printed it.”
Creating the right electronic design was quite challenging for both Daniel and Kiara. Many components and wires must fit inside, while at the same time the device should remain as compact and light as possible. And the construction must be robust enough to prevent electric discharge. As Kiara explains what they did: “The wires should all be connected, and all the components had to fit in the box. I needed to learn a lot about how to design this. Some Ph.D. students helped me with the design process and the PCB (printed circuit board) that we used. So our first focus was to get things working”. Kiara demonstrates the robot, that instantly reacts to her commands. She lifts her arm and explains that the sleeve is currently too large and heavy for kids. “It’s suitable for an adult, but still a bit large to be really appealing. The next challenge is to make it more compact. Unfortunately, Daniel and I will be going to back Peru soon, but we will definitely follow up with further development”.
The three-month assignment is nearing its end. Marco, Miguel and Talia are very proud of Daniel and Kiara: “They have done a great job. In a very short time they created an original, working prototype with great potential. I am truly happy with the result. It was really a great achievement. I think it’s important to give many students from all around the world the opportunity to learn skills, to meet with other people from different cultures and to grow as a person.” Kiara fully agrees. “When you are selected, it’s super cool. I have learned so much! Not only technical stuff, but also about processes and collaboration. I bring home a lot of experience and I hope to inspire other students from my hometown Puno.” “So do I”, confirms Daniel. “I have a dream to become a researcher. Actually, it was the second time I applied for this programme. The first time, I passed all the steps but at the final step I failed. I tried again, because I want to study computer science and I want to be a Ph.D. I am now enjoying my time in the Netherlands and I am even more determined to continue in this field. Unfortunately, I will be leaving soon, but I will try to apply for another internship. I come from a small town in the jungle, which is called Tingo Maria. I want to encourage other Peruvian students to seize every opportunity to follow their dreams!”
Looking forward, Marco is anticipating the ‘next level’ for the Iron Man inspired project: “We are already halfway, I think. It’s now up to the next team to improve this first model, the robot as well as the remote control. Some kids told us that the robot should be more responsive, and it could also be modified to make it more appealing to girls. In the end, we want to develop concrete modules for education, and we want to visit local schools to showcase this technology. All of our work is Open Science. We want to publish it, so any school in the world will be able benefit from this. Not only in the privileged countries with many tools and resources. It will help kids understand terms like 5G or 6G. When we presented this platform at the Science is Wonderful event in Brussels, it was rewarding to see so many kids excited and smiling. We hope that other kids around the world could get the same feeling. Science is very cool, we just need to teach it better.”
Marco expresses his gratitude to the supporters and enablers for Daniel and Kiara’s research:
the RePu initiative: Research Experience for Peruvian Undergraduates, that helps BSc Peruvian students get research experience
the supporting universities: PUCP for Daniel and UNI for Kiara
TU Delft Ph.D students Miguel Chavez and Talia Xu, for their guidance