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Posted June 9, 2017

Meet Cozmo

The tiny, cranky robot at the center of one cool senior project

Cozmo with senior Glenn Norris Jr., who is part of a four-person computer engineering team coding the robot to pick up pins and navigate a Foucault Pendulum.
Garvin Tso

If you tell him what to do, he won’t listen. He’ll raise his arms in indignation. Ask him to “come here” and similar to an overtired toddler, he’ll stubbornly nudge forward a millimeter. Strange behavior for a robot, whose personality is a product of his creators’ will, but that’s Cozmo — a miniature despot who fits in the palm of your hand and belongs to four Cal State East Bay computer engineers.

“Cozmo’s personality was preprogrammed, so we can’t change that,” said senior Glenn Norris Jr., one of the robot’s pseudo-parents. “He’s small and cute, but feisty. When I give him commands like ‘Cozmo, go this far and turn,’ if he’s having a hard time computing that, he’ll essentially argue. He’ll just sit there and have a tantrum. He’s like a small pet or child. But it made testing him really fun.”

Cozmo was a gift to the university from Anki, a consumer robotics company based in San Francisco that is sponsoring a project for the students through Assistant Professor Roger Doering’s senior design class. With additional funding from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers to the tune of about $800, soon-to-be graduates Norris, Nassar Alzakari, Cole Browser and Bob Larsen have built a Foucault Pendulum, a structure popular around the world for its capacity to visualize a basic principle of physics.

“Pendulums represent harmonic motion,” Norris said. “And what’s so special about the Foucault Pendulum is that it looks like it’s rotating but it’s not, it’s just swinging back and forth — it’s the Earth beneath that’s rotating.”

As the pendulum swings, it also knocks down pins set up around it in a 360-degree circle. 

The Cal State East Bay spin? To code a robot to put the pins back in place without disturbing the swing of the pendulum, which is simply cool — and according to Norris, could save human time and potential, albeit unlikely, injury. For example, he estimates the brass ball at the center of the Foucault Pendulum at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco (where dozens of pendulums have been made and sent to other museums over the years) is about 300 pounds. “I don’t know if anyone has ever been hit by it setting the pins back in place, but that would hurt,” he said.

From right: Bob Larsen, Glenn Norris Jr. and Cole Browser, three of four computer engineering teammates who built a Foucault Pendulum that is currently housed in "The Cave" within the College of Science.
Garvin Tso

Thanks to Norris and his teammates, the solution is here. Over the last several weeks, the students, who are all members of the Cal State East Bay chapter of IEEE, have spent week after week working with their hand-built, approximately 10-foot Foucault Pendulum. Though they still have some work to do this summer developing the AI that makes Cozmo effective — the mercurial robot can indeed pick up pins and navigate the ever-swinging pendulum — they hope to soon be able to donate their code to museums who might be interested in leveling up their Foucault displays.

“It would be really cool to see this used somewhere like the Academy of Sciences,” Norris said. "It's just an expression of what can be done with robotics that I think visitors would like and could inspire kids to ask questions about science — both foundational concepts and what might be possible in the future."

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