Mechatronic Light Saber

I was watching Return of the Jedi the other night for the 723rd time and was amazed at how well the original 3 are holding up in terms of special effects given advances in the field over the past 30 years. There’s a scene in the movie where Darth Vader hands the Emperor Luke’s light saber, to which the emperor responds

“Ah, yes, a Jedi’s weapon. Much like your
father’s. By now you must know your father
can never be turned from the dark side. So
will it be with you.”

Now for those uninitiated geeks out there, one task every Jedi must do on their path towards Jedihood is to build their own light saber.  Because of this every light saber is unique, and carries the distinctive fingerprint of the Jedi who constructed it.

But what would be the appropriate mechatronic “light saber”? It would have to be something that encompasses mechatronics (software component, electronics component, and mechanical component), something that every mechatronics engineer builds at some point during their training (also known as grad school) and something that would bear the distinct mark of the engineer who built it. The more I thought about it, the more the answer seemed obvious …


an autonomous robot.

An autonomous robot, perhaps better than any other product, completely captures all aspects of mechatronics. It needs a well designed mechanical system in order to move around and interact with its environment, it needs electronics in order to sense the world around it and drive all its actuators, and finally it needs software to take all its different inputs and make decisions. At some point during their mechatronics course work every mechatronics engineer has had to build a robot. Because the design of a robot can take so many different shapes and forms, it would be almost impossible for two engineers designing independently to design the same robot.

So, I would like to propose a challenge to the world: before you become a true mechatronics engineer, you must build your own light saber robot. Now, unlike with Jedis, there is no Yoda figure to judge and pass your robot (actually there is, Professor Ed Carryer of Stanford, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t want to spend the rest of his days deciding which robots are worthy enough to allow their designers to call themselves a mechatronic engineer), so it is up to the individual engineer to judge his robot worthy of mechatronic acceptability. If this catches on, this actually shouldn’t be a problem, because employers would expect potential hires to bring their mechatronic light saber to all interviews.

Ultimately my dream of having all mechatronic engineers build their own robot in order to be considered a true mechatronics engineer is to help foster a sense of community and fraternity around mechatronics. I believe the more mechatronics engineers feel tied to one another, the more we will collaborate with each other, leading to greater and more ambitious projects.

The Arduino Keeps Popping Up

I came across a blog post about the Arduino yesterday on an industrial design blog, Core77. I was definitely surprised to see an entire post dedicated to the Arduino, an open-source electronics and embedded software platform which targets DIY’ers and non-engineers who want to build/hack smart products, on a blog that focuses primarily on product and industrial design. The Arduino is getting great exposure and keeps popping up in places I wouldn’t expect. I’m excited the conversation about and accessibility of smart product design is spreading.

Why I’m Excited

The Arduino provides scaffolding for outsiders and non-embedded system designers, to understand and explore smart product design. It doesn’t matter what your experience or skill level is, Arduino provides an extremely accessible interface for people to get started, from both a hardware perspective and a software perspective. The electronics come packaged and ready to go, with easy to use connectors and easy to understand labels. Several vendors even provide drop-in electronics, called shields (click for a list of shields), which provide specific functionality (ie motor control) to the user with little effort. The free software interface provides a level of separation and simplification from the Microcontroller (MCU). Users have access to easy-to-understand functions and don’t have to familiarize themselves with specific registers and modules of the MCU.

People you wouldn’t expect are getting their hands dirty and cool things are happening. The internet is ripe with cool projects people have put together on their own and there are a ton of project examples and project guides to get people involved. Everyday people are building their own smart products!

Why This Matters To Me

Most importantly, the discussion is finally spreading to people in different walks of life! The exposure allows people who aren’t necessarily engineers to see the possibilities available in smart product design. Different perspectives can easily join the brainstorm. I’m convinced more wild and crazy ideas will be born, not only in garages but also in the office. Ultimately, better products will be designed.

And hopefully the realization of what is possible with a simple open source tool will lead people to imagine what is possible from a professional service firm (ahem Pocobor) and the value we offer. If nothing else, it helps me describe what I do and how technology is being incorporated into new products we use in our everyday lives.

Get Involved

We’ve even put the board in an open source project, called PedalOn, we’re completing for a client to allow customers to modify or rewrite the system software. We’ll talk more about this project in the coming weeks.


An Arduino is even inside PedalOn, a Pocobor project.

I encourage anyone not directly involved with smart product design to get their hands on one of these and start playing. The barrier to entry is low; you can get one for less than $30 from Sparkfun. Or try another distributor – for a full list of distributors look here.

LEGO House

Recently I have been using LEGOs to prototype a gearbox for one of our clients. Every time I dig into a box of LEGO parts and hear that familiar rustle of plastic components, I am struck by how useful LEGOs are for creating rapid models of mechanical systems. And while I normally use LEGOs to build smaller-than-life models of larger systems, a group in England is constructing a full-size house, complete with LEGO shower and toilet, from millions of LEGO blocks! Seriously! Check out more here.

I am very interested to see how they incorporate LEGO’s “Mindstorms” robotic technology into the house. I can imagine motion sensing light control and a LEGO HVAC system powered by a Mindstorms computer. Of course, they may have bigger issues to worry about, such as waterproofing the roof.