PSU’s Dr Perkowski strikes again: “LEGOs for adults.”

Dr. Perkowski love robots. And he wants you to love them, too. Photo by Jinyi Qi of the PSU Vanguard.


arek Perkowski is a professor at Portland State University, and has gotten our attention before for his impressive show of dedication in teaching “Quantum Robotics Sunday School” to high school students.

This time, he’s gotten our attention because of another catchy name he’s come up with: LEGOs for adults. He said that you can find all the parts you need to build a real robot at a local hardware store.

To be a better robot performer, this one wears a Korean theater mask. Photo by Jinyi Qi of the PSU Vanguard.

A PSU journalist spoke with the professor, who explained his idea. He was doing a presentation on what he calls “Portland Cyber Theatre,” which in his own words is an “initiative to build the first complete interactive theatre of humanoid robots.”

Sound awesome? It is: check out this video of Japanese cyber theater (English supertitles behind the stage). The pace is kind of slow (some types of Japanese theater are just like that.) But remember that these robots perform all choreography and lines on their own—they’re responding fluidly to the live actors onstage.

What Professor Perkowski has been doing is a little different. Rather than just making a robot that can respond correctly with pre-determined choreography and lines, he wants to make a robot which can actually interact dramatically on its own. You don’t program them, you teach them,” he said.

He believes that robots are “great adventures.” As such, they’re a good gateway into the world of logic and programming, because you can actually see your work embodied. And that’s awesome.

Here’s what we mean:

Construction of the Korean-mask robot.

Read on:


Where Robotics and Chemistry Come Together For One Oregon Local

Some people love chemistry because it's the science of change. It's really beautiful to watch something turn into something else, right before your eyes.


ecently we managed to contact and interview an Oregon resident with a very unique story. It’s really amazing to see where science and engineering can get people, no matter their interests. Walter Hendricks* now works in the US Army doing an exciting job.

How It Started

Walter grew up in Philomath, Oregon and moved to Beaverton after high school. He considers the valley his home, and loves the environment and the people.

But what he really loves is chemistry and technology. He says his interests really started blossoming when, at a young age, he played with a Dr. Dreadful chemistry cooking set…

[It] started with a lot of interesting “sciency” stuff to me, but ended with a large amount of disgusting sugar blobs. It crushed what little desire I was developing for cooking at that time since I was making the realization that cooking is a form of chemistry (for a few years at least) and threw my hard chemistry lust into an overdrive. It’s scared me away from eating most things sugary to this day.

With candy-phobia and an interest in science, he started realizing he was a little different than some other kids: “I was the weird kid that would do math problems for fun. A+B=C always intrigued me.

The TALON is one tool the US Army uses to disarm bombs. EOD technicians use robotics skills, combined with knowledge of chemistry, to make shrewd decisions about how to dispose of dangerous explosives.

Chemistry, Robotics and High School

Actually, mathematics and chemistry are very closely related. Chemistry consists of a lot of math-like equations for chemical reactions, and Walter knew this. He said, “it reminded me of a simple machine, and then I took that thought to the next level when I was old enough to play with fireworks. A+B=boom.

Walter’s interest in explosive chemistry was an unsafe one, but luckily he found an outlet for his interests in high school. Philmoath HS was doing research and development in the biodiesel industry, where he focused his chemistry interests.

But like many people our age, he had a great interest in robotics, too. For that, he joined FIRST Robotics in 2003, being a part of PHS’s Team PHRED (called Team 847 when he joined) and working both as a competitor and mentor until 2008.

EDIT: Here's an image of Walter with his former team, at the 2013 regional tournament.

In The Army

While maybe not for everyone, Walter enjoys his unique and highly-skilled job.

Once he got out of high school, he had a realization: “Everyone has that dream job and place they want to work. Work towards it, and never give up,” he says. And Walter knew what he had to do.

Combining his passions for robotics and chemistry, he joined the US Army and is now working as an Explosive Ordinance Disposal technician. It’s an exciting and dangerous line of work, where he uses his expertise in explosive chemical engineering and his mastery of robotics to disable explosives all around the world, and protect important people from danger.

I wouldn’t say science and technology skills are sneaking into my life, but more of hitting me in my face. I’ve had to do pressure calculations off the top of my head just to make sure no one would get hurt. Not something I expected to use from high-school. . .  I know a few people who would of listened more in math if they knew it would of helped them with taxes, saving money, or disarming a bomb.

Walter, when he's on leave from the army, loves playing Diablo 3 and other computer games.

Walter’s unique and risky line of work might not suit everyone, but it definitely shows that no matter how different your interests are, the world of engineering has a job for you. He has a few words of advice for everyone: “Settling for what you have can be be great for now, but sitting in one area gets too comfortable, and it’s the complacency that ends dreams.

Don’t be complacent. Find what you love, like Walter did, and do everything you can to pursue it.

*Walter Hendricks is a pseudonym; as his work is often classified, he asked that we don’t use his real name.

Link Dump 7/27

Nothing to say; just enjoy some great engineering and computer science links!

  • Let’s start out with a video of a robot which juggles 5 balls almost flawlessly. Turn the volume down because it’s noisy.
  • Some local news: someone sued Portland Public Schools to remove Wi-Fi on the basis that it exposes kids to radiation. The judge dismissed the case, knowing that unless you’re pressing the Wi-Fi antenna right up against your body, nothing’s going to happen. That’s because of the spectrum of radio waves Wi-Fi uses and the power at which it’s transmitted.
  • The infuriatingly cute CryptoCat logo

    Watch this fascinating video (from 1930!) of gears in motion.
  • Mathematicians, inspired by the rules of Sudoku puzzles, develop a new way to encrypt images. Cool!
  • A great blog which shoots down sensationalized news with reason and science, Unreasonably Dangerous Onion Rings, posted this great article about a proposed underground vacuum-rail, which news companies hyped by saying you could get from L.A. to New York in 45 minutes.
  • Finally (we love this so  much that we had to post on Facebook too), read about a 21 year old college student who programmed an amazingly simple encrypted-chat website which is also so highly-secured that people thought it would be impossible to make: CryptoCat.

Fusion and Robotics

ITER, the international thermonuclear experimental reactor being built in France, is a shining beacon of hope for scientists and engineers who fear that our reckless burning of coal and oil is destroying the world (plus the fact that we’re going to run out). It’s being built for research purposes by academics around the world. And we’ve talked about how fusion at ITER will work.

Image of the ITER tokomak, the magnetic container for a band of plasma

Here’s a brief recap: basically, you superheat hydrogen, the lightest element, and compress it using magnets until it fuses in the same reaction that constantly goes on in the sun. The fused hydrogen turns into helium and releases neutrons, which heat lithium. That lithium boils water and the steam is used to turn turbines, just like every other common form of power does.

Right now the power the heating and magnet-containing processes take is greater than the power it produces, so it’s not viable. But ITER is expected to get 10 times greater output than is needed as input.

Check out this PeakOil article to read more about why fusion is viable and safe, as well as why it’s the future of energy.

ITER isn’t expected to be complete until 2019, and fusion reactors like DEMO (the commercialized version of ITER) will start running in the 2040s. That’s still a ways out, because fusion research is still a growing field.

Out point is that it’s a promising field and will definitely be high-paying, since the world will come to rely on it for its energy needs.

Part of what makes fusion so great is that it makes power easy to access. Electric cars will be viable for everyone because we’ll have a form of energy which is actually cheaper than oil, and better for the environment to boot.

This means that power cells and batteries will also become more widespread than they already are (hint: they’re already everywhere). And with power cells comes the capacity for mobile technology. Cell phones, laptops, wireless devices.

And robots.

In fact, DARPA (a government agency we like to mention because of their awesome research) just announced a new contest. The first person to build a humanoid robot capable of operating power tools, drive vehicles, climb ladders as well as a few other things will get awarded $2 million. And they’ll probably get a pretty sweet job with DARPA.

An image of humanoid robots, as depicted by DARPA.

This particular contest might be a little short notice for high school students who want to become engineers or computer scientists. It’s a little unrealistic to try and build such a thing so quick. But it’s a testament to the fact that robotics is becoming such a big deal in the engineering world that the government is actually having contests to get people building.

Plus, DARPA has contests like these all the time, so keep an eye out as you get older.

Robotics and fusion are both rapidly growing fields. Both use one’s knowledge of the physical world as well as one’s ability to work with computers and program. And both are extremely lucrative.

So if you like doing awesome work and getting paid a ton for it, we recommend you study computer science and engineering.

Santiam Christian Schools FRC Team Makes Nationals.

And after eleven years of competing, it’s about time!

We mention FRC pretty frequently and so were glad to hear the good news that they made it to nationals. The regional event took place at Memorial Colosseum in Portland, where 65 other high school teams competed for the regional prize and the chance to compete at nationals.

Read about last year’s FRC regionals competition.

SCS made an alliance with teams 360 and 3711 from Washington state, with whom they managed to do the impossible feat: balancing three robots on a tilting ramp at the end of the round, for huge bonus points. No other teams managed to pull it off.

Now SCS is working to raise the $15,000 total (read: fifteen thousand dollars!) they’ll need to pay for airfare, hotels and food—and of course the $5,000 in registration fees—needed to attend the championships.

The national championships event will be on April 25-28 in St. Louis, Missouri. Wish them luck!

Link Dump 03/09

No talking today. Instead we’re just going to share some of the best engineering and computer science links around.

Being young is great, but you’ll be an engineer even
as you start to age. So it’s best to keep on

Coolest part of robotics teams: not the learning, but the teaching

One of the greatest opportunities that you’ll have by joining (or starting) a robotics competition team is that for every event, there is a big project your team will do in conjunction with actually getting ready for the competition itself.

In that project, you do a lot of different things. There’s the documentation for the robot itself and a couple other things, but one of the coolest parts is that a lot of the teams do some sort of outreach themselves. Outreach, as in spreading the love that is robotics.

A team in Reedville is doing just that. Their team name is AFOOFA: “All for one, One for all.” And the one-for-all part of their team goes to Reedville Elementary every week and spends an hour teaching elementary schoolers how to build and program robots.

You can read more in the link below!

Read on: