Students in Makerspace club design a robot to locate survivors in disaster

Think Marco Polo, the swimming pool classic, but with fewer wet noodles and more lifesaving robots.

This past spring, a team of engineers created a rover that can pick out the human voice from a sea of noise and follow the sound to its source. The idea is that, whether in a war zone or earthquake, the robot could save the lives of people buried in disaster.

The minds behind the project? Four undergraduate members of Robotics@Berkeley — one of several clubs based in Moffitt Library’s Makerspace that tackle global problems through engineering and design.

“It’s very dangerous to send in humans as rescue personnel, … so that’s a perfect opportunity for robotics,” says Joshua Price ’18, co-founder of Robotics@Berkeley. “If (the robot) gets crushed, it’s expensive, but it’s not a life. It’s nothing compared to a life.”

Robotics team in Moffitt
Left to right: Albert Lee, Michael Hole, Rachel Williams, and Morgan Nanez work on their robotics project in Moffitt Library in spring 2018. (Photos by Sofia Daniels for the UC Berkeley Library)

Each semester, Robotics@Berkeley puts on challenges to inspire students to push boundaries and explore their creativity. The team working on the voice recognition robot was led by Rachel Williams ’21, who worked with Morgan Nanez ’21, Michael Hole ’19, and Albert Lee ’21.

By the end of the semester — after a road full of challenges — the robot was able to successfully detect human vocal frequencies and pinpoint the direction the sound came from.

“I was very proud of our final product,” Williams says.

For Williams, the project was a chance for team members to explore their curiosity and create something bigger than themselves. Each member of the team has unique skills and helped with different aspects of the robot — from circuit design and motor control to voice filters and location algorithms.

That’s what the club is all about, says Price, who launched Robotics@Berkeley three years ago to give students interested in robotics a way to pool their talents, ideas, and resources. Robotics calls for skills ranging from hardware and programming to project management, and requires many tools and parts.

Robot partsRachel Williams looks closely at robot
Top to bottom: Left to right: The team, including leader Rachel Williams, worked on the rover for months.

At Moffitt’s Makerspace, students have access to a suite of robotics tools, from Arduinos (simple computers), motors, and Raspberry Pis (robot brains) to soldering irons and oscilloscopes (tools to gauge electronic signals). They also have a space to gather, and tinker, together.

“People are interested in doing cool projects, where they build stuff and it moves and can solve problems,” Price says. “But you can't do it on your own — you need a community.

“We get people to think about what they can make, because we have the resources for them to do it.”

Last year, Robotics@Berkeley held a prosthetics challenge; the winning team is now working with a nonprofit organization in South America to produce low-cost prosthetics for victims of land mines left over from war. This summer, the team sent its prototype to Ecuador, where the very first person will use it.

“Their elbow is amazing — it’s as good as my elbow,” Price says. “It’s a really a good feeling for me — for everyone involved in the club — to know that we’re actually using these skills we have to do something useful and meaningful for people in the world.”