Students are often driven by baser concerns and robotics students even more so - hungry all of the time?  Invent a robot that can cook.   Need to take over the Republic?   Build some robots that, oddly, use colored swords.   

The Experimental Robotics course at Stanford gives students a chance to show off their automated ideas to classmates in the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.     The course is a chance for students to take the math and programming skills they learned in the Intro to Robotics course and use them to direct a pre-fabricated robotic arm to perform a task in the real world.

It brings out the tinkerer in all of us.  The students who wanted to make RoboCook had to devise a way for the mechanical barbecue chef had to know whether it was touching the burger or the grill.

"They were able to use a force sensor next to the handle, so when the spatula is touching the burger, the robot can feel the contact," said computer science Professor Oussama Khatib, who taught the class. 

But hamburgers do not strike back so designing a sword-fighting robot took a little more because the robot needs to locate the human hand and know what strategy to take in order to make the next move in real time.  Luckily, Microsoft has laid the ground work with its Kinect sensor technology.   The color sensor can detect objects in three-dimensional space.

"We use the color image to isolate the sword from the background, because the opponent's sword is green and nothing else in the background is green," said graduate student Ken Oslund, who helped design what he calls the "JediBot," named in homage to the lightsaber-wielding characters from the "Star Wars" movies, if you have been living on Dagoba your whole life and didn't already catch the reference.

Another group attached an LED light to the end of a robotic arm and used the robot's movements to "paint" colorful time-lapse photos in a dark room, including images of a star and a flower.

"I love projects where I get to make something, design something and figure out how to make something work," said graduate student Tim Jenkins "To be able to take a class where you're actually programming and are actually making something move, that was really exciting."

Khatib said it was rewarding to see students use their academic knowledge to solve real-world problems. His favorite moment during the course is the day students demonstrate their creations.

"It brings a lot of excitement to the students, to the teaching assistants that worked with them and to me personally," he said.   "The whole project – from design to performance – is three-and-a-half weeks, so this is remarkable."