Transglobal robot control: Project shows potential for networked teaching and international cooperation

A cooperation between the FH Technikum Wien and Tufts University in Boston shows: With current software tools, even complex tasks can be implemented with little effort when it comes to online teaching.

Sometimes even small ideas have great potential. This is demonstrated, for example, by a project that Horst Orsolits, head of the Virtual Technologies & Systems Engineering competence area at the University of Applied Sciences Technikum Wien, recently implemented with some students as part of an online course. Together with colleagues from the USA and Japan, the students simultaneously controlled a robot arm and had it draw sketches in an online CAD program. Originally started as a "just for fun" project, it became a successful example of how current software tools can be used in online courses to implement even complex tasks with little effort.

The idea for the project came from a conversation with Chris Rogers, a professor friend at Tufts University in Boston, says Orsolits: "Together we thought about how we could use a new software system from PTC in an international setup. By integrating the Onshape company, PTC has added a cloud-based CAD tool to its product portfolio that allows users to work on a CAD model at the same time. "Being able to use CAD as Software as a Service (SaaS) allows for easy multi-user setup, which can offer great benefits. For example, it is enough to send a link by mail to allow a colleague to access and collaborate on a CAD model," Orsolits explains.

Robot control via AR tool

The two experts came up with the idea of additionally integrating a robot via augmented reality software (Vuforia Spatial Toolbox) and then having students control it in parallel. "With this AR tool, it is relatively easy to program a path that a robot can follow. What the robot is drawing can then be displayed simultaneously in the online CAD program."  The idea of trying this out in a joint online course quickly turned into something more: students from Vienna and Boston were joined by colleagues from New Hampshire (White Mountain Science Inc.) and Afrel Co. in Japan. Finally, in a world-spanning Zoom session, thirty participants connected with each other and had the robot make parallel sketches on a world map in Onshape.

"The basic idea was really just to find out what works and what doesn't with these tools. It was great fun for us, but you can also see it as a push to show quickly and without a big project proposal: SaaS platforms like OnShape democratize international learning," Orsolits says.

In the future, he wants to conduct more frequent online teaching formats with the partner university in Boston, in which students solve tasks collaboratively, similar to what has already been done in the international case study in the MA23 project Engine. Such activities are also an alternative to projects that cannot be carried out at the moment due to Corona: "We usually take part in 'hackathons' with motivated students. These don't take place at the moment, but with such formats we can also promote those students who want to be a little active beyond their regular studies," adds the FHTW expert. "And on top of that, of course, when else do you have the opportunity to exchange ideas with colleagues in Boston in such an uncomplicated way and solve problems together."