Remote Access to a Prototyping Laboratory

Lathwell, Stephen (2007). Remote Access to a Prototyping Laboratory. PhD thesis The Open University.



There is a growing global demand for continuing adult higher education particularly in science and engineering subjects. New technologies are emerging which would enable the development of a Remote Access Laboratory for rapid prototyping of Artificial Intelligence, as a learning environment for mechatronic engineering, in which high precision electromechanical devices are designed to exhibit autonomous behaviour.

Secondary research investigated the learning theories for a Remote Access Laboratory, and the current practices for distance learning, involving groupware in shared activity 'collaboratories'. Having determined that the laboratory would need a multi-user interactive environment architecture, with the requirement for adaptability to rapid developments,a distributed software architecture was selected. The laboratory design was subsequently argued to be best served by Intelligent Agents in a Multi-Agent system.

The aims of the research were to establish the viability of a Remote Access Laboratory for mechatronic experimentation, and to evaluate the technologies required to implement such a laboratory environment for rapid prototyping. These were achieved by developing a novel user interface, based on a multi-functional screen layout, and a graphical specification facility to provide robotic navigation that is intuitive to use and does not require text-based programming.

The research investigated the prototyping of robotic behaviour, which used Programming by Demonstration as an innovative technique to prototype robot navigation. The method of designing behaviours met an anticipated need to allow the robot to interact with an environment, to achieve goals under conditions of uncertainty, while requiring a level of abstraction in the behaviour design. The interface structured a composite of the designed behaviours into prototype Artificial Intelligence using a hierarchical behaviour architecture, which complied with the principles of Object Orientated programming. This was subsequently a new and original programming method to facilitate rapid prototyping of Artificial Intelligence design and structuring.

Experimentation involved 20 participants attempting to accomplish a series of tasks which involved using the prototyped interface and an existing text-based robot programming system. The participants were profiled by their formal qualifications, knowledge and experience. The experimental data obtained were used to establish a comparative measure of the prototype interface success compared with an existing distance-learning, home experiment kit, in the form of a small controllable model vehicle. The data obtained provided strong evidence to support the hypothesis that a Programming by Demonstration based system for rapid prototyping is more flexible and easier to use than a previously existing distance learning text-based system. The Programming by Demonstration system showed great promise, being quicker for prototyping, and more intuitive. The learning interface design pioneered new techniques and technologies for rapid prototyping of Artificial Intelligence in a Mechatronics Remote Access Laboratory.

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