MSR Students Get Crash Course in Embedded Systems

The first quarter project-based course in Northwestern Engineering's Master of Science in Robotics (MSR) program gives students hands-on experience working with robots.

What do flipping pancakes and stopping a ball from rolling into a goal have in common? 

Both were tasks accomplished by robots thanks to students in Northwestern Engineering's Master of Science in Robotics (MSR) program. The projects were the culmination of Embedded Systems in Robotics, a core course that all MSR students take in their first quarter that has them working hands-on with real robots, often for the first time.

Watch the students talk about their final projects below.


Embedded Systems in Robotics is a project-based course that introduces students to a range of skills they will use throughout MSR, including kinematics, computer vision, path planning, localization, and control. Most significantly, the course gives students their first experience with the Robot Operating System (ROS), a key framework used by many robotics professionals and emphasized throughout MSR. 

Part of the course's value comes from learning the different engineering components needed to make a robot work, but it's equally important that students learn what to do when components don't work the way they are supposed to.

"Even if every component works as it's supposed to, when you put them all together, nothing works as it's supposed to," MSR program director and professor Todd Murphey said. "That type of experience is something that can't be simulated in a classroom. It has to be something that's experienced with a real system that fails and fails and fails until it works."

Projects in the class vary from year to year and are never repeated. Past MSR students have helped a robot play checkers, build with Legos, and putt a golf ball into a hole.

This year's class pursued five different team projects, including:

  • Using a seven degree of freedom robot arm to cook and flip pancakes
  • A robot that pours and mixes different liquids together to create custom drinks
  • A robot that balances a ball on a whiteboard and navigates it through hand-drawn mazes
  • A robot goalie that detects rolling balls and moves an arm to block them from entering a goal
  • A robot that places marker caps of the appropriate color on an array of markers, using computer vision to detect the marker colors and locations

"The class is a comprehensive course where students put fundamental robotics concepts into practice," said MSR deputy director Matt Elwin, who taught Embedded Systems in Robotics. "This year's group of students did a great job collaborating with one another and using the lessons learned to make robots accomplish complex tasks. I'm excited to watch them continue to learn and grow during the rest of their time in the program."

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