Flexing their ‘magical’ robotic arm

University of Idaho faculty advisor Ralph Butwig is on the board of the Discovery Center of Idaho. He helped DCI partner with students, including graduate Austyn Sullivan-Watson (right), to build a gesture-controlled robotic arm.

BOISE — Imagine moving colorful blocks using a robotic arm without ever touching the machine.

This vision is a reality because of a senior capstone design project at the University of Idaho that could become a new exhibit at the Discovery Center of Idaho.

The robotic arm can open and close fingers, pick up objects and move similar to a human hand. Except this hand is made out of wires, screws and 3D-printed parts.

“It is built out of several parts including carbon fiber printed 3D parts,” Austyn Sullivan-Watson said in an interview at the Discovery Center of Idaho. Sullivan-Watson recently graduated from the University of Idaho with a degree in mechanical engineering. “The main skeleton structure is acrylic. And there are some 3D-printed parts made out of carbon fiber and plastic.”

To operate, the user places an arm in front of a monitor and the robotic arm mimics the user’s movement. This technology is called leap motion technology.

“The user uses a single hand to operate the robotic arm,” said Sullivan-Watson, the student who led the project. “Place your hand over the sensor in the leap motion theater. There is a sweet spot that will start the robot. Then the device transfers the hand motion to the robot. It will imitate the motions that your hand supplies.”

A team of four undergraduate students in mechanical engineering and computer science at the University of Idaho created the robotic arm as their senior capstone project last year.

“The senior capstone is a yearlong course with a project,” Sullivan-Watson said. “The team went through several different prototypes with three different operating systems. We had a plan to make a usable exhibit for the Discovery Center.”

The undergraduate team was largely independent, with check-ins every other week with a faculty adviser and one Skype meeting with the Discovery Center of Idaho.

“The students did a great job,” said Ralph Budwig, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Idaho and the team’s faculty adviser. “The leap motion robot is a challenge. And the students rose to the challenge and exceeded expectations.”

The robot’s leap motion technology is a new addition to virtual reality, and has been used recently in virtual reality headsets to make artificial reality more realistic.

“The technology is new; the leap motion is really intriguing,” said Eric Miller, executive director of the Discovery Center of Idaho. “It is kind of magical, the way that works without having to touch anything. It is a really unique experience, and I think people will love it.”

The current version of the robotic arm is a prototype. The robotic arm requires more testing before it can be used by the public.

“But eventually we hope to have a working exhibit,” Miller said. “We have some robotic classes and camps, but really nothing quite like this.”