RIOT Lab a new approach to teaching robotics

Deakin news
11 September 2017

Deakin University’s new $1.2 million Robotics and IoT Studio is taking online learning to a new level and to some far-flung places.

Known as the RIOT Lab, which stands for ‘Robotics and Internet of Things’, it has been designed to enable students to participate in the learning environment at the same time, whether they are campus or cloud (online) based.

Dr Tim Wilkin is a senior lecturer in Deakin’s School of Information Technology.

‘In traditional learning environments online and distance education students can struggle compared to their classroom-based peers,’ Dr Wilkin says.

‘This is often attributable to a lack of engagement with studies while balancing family and work pressures, as well as isolation from fellow learners, teaching staff and learning environments.

‘Through innovative space design and the inclusion of existing and emerging technologies - such as Solstice, Echo Live, Blackboard Collaborate, live vision and audio streams, and specialised networks - the RIOT Lab supports the delivery of engaging, open-ended, and collaborative problem-based learning activities.’

The RIOT Lab houses 24 Nao humanoid robots, 20 small mobile (‘puck style’) robots, a number of drones, a large range of specialist computing and sensing devices, and a ‘maker space’ to support prototyping, which includes a 3D printer, laser cutter, and electronics work station.

The RIOT Lab at Deakin's Melbourne Burwood Campus.

Dr Wilkin is the unit chair of the first year Robotics Studio unit, the first unit to run in the new lab, and says the unit provides an excellent example of how the RIOT Lab is already delivering on Deakin’s promise of premium cloud learning.

‘Within this unit students undertake hands-on experiential learning with humanoid Nao robots, learning about the capabilities and limitations of robotic systems, while also learning to develop applications software for controlling robot behaviour.

‘In Trimester 1 this year we had several cloud-based students undertaking the unit.

‘One cloud student undertook his studies while serving on active deployment in Afghanistan with the Australian Air Force. During his off-duty hours he was able engage in learning activities by logging in to the studio and connecting to its robots.

‘With monitoring by teaching staff, who were on hand to guide and support his learning and provide immediate feedback, he was able to control robots in the lab, receive real-time vision streams from both lab and robot cameras, and communicate in real time with teaching staff and other students.

‘These facilities ensured this student could experience learning with robotic systems much the same as campus-based students, lacking only the physical interaction required when his robot would fall over!’

Providing synchronous engagement with the lab does create one issue not commonly faced by teaching staff dealing with campus-based students: time-zone differences.

To help with this issue, and to further support all students with the capacity to do offline learning, Dr Wilkin says the Robotics Studio unit makes use of advanced robotic simulation software and provides students with access to their own virtual robot lab.

`Students can develop their software in their own time and evaluate this in simulation, then test this on real robots when they are able to log in, enabling them to keep up with their studies, even when studying overseas, or balancing work, family and study.’

There are plans for further units to be delivered in this exciting new space, providing more Deakin students - no matter where they are situated - with access to an innovative, connected and enriching learning environment.

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