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A.W. Beattie gets 'thumbs up' in robotics

At a glance

The Agile Robotics/Advanced Manufacturing program, previously Agile Robotics/Intelligent Systems, was rewritten for this school year to focus more on robotics. The computer programming aspect of the program was merged into a more rigorous Advanced Computer Programming program.

Students in the Agile Robotics/Advanced Manufacturing program now can focus more on robotics and use the classroom equipment that includes 3D printers; a FANUC robotic arm, an industrial robot used to automate tasks; a computer numerical control machine, a computer programmed industrial machine; and plastic molding injection machine.

Career Center officials also recently installed two virtual welding machines for use in the program and across other programs.

A.W. Beattie features 17 programs areas for students in grades 10-12 and educates 650 students from Avonworth, Deer Lakes, Fox Chapel Area, Hampton, North Allegheny, Northgate, North Hills, Pine-Richland and Shaler Area school districts.

By Bethany Hofstetter
Wednesday, April 9, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

By pressing a button and opening and closing his hand inside a wired glove, Alex Burns brings to life a robotic hand that mimics every movement of Burn's own hand.

The robotic hand is the latest project of students in A.W. Beattie Career Center's Agile Robotics/Advanced Manufacturing program, a program reorganized for this school year to focus on robotics and its industrial applications.

“It's really fun, but I realized it's so much more than that … I think it would be great for prosthetics — cheap but still a quality medical product,” said Burns, a senior at Shaler Area High School and an A.W. Beattie student, who worked to build the robotic hand.

Randy Bish, a teacher in the Agile Robotics/Advanced Manufacturing program, embraced the direction of the program and industry and challenged his students to create the robotic hand as a project with “real application.”

Burns used the class' 3D printers to create the plastic parts, or “bones,” of the robotic hand using a design taken from Thingiverse, an open source site for printing 3D digital designs. He then worked to create the stationary “arm” and threaded two wires through each finger, which are attached to motors to control the hand.

Burns said it took about four weeks to build the robot. The hardest part was getting the right tension on each of the wires, he said.

After the hand was constructed, Thomas Kornish, a junior at Hampton High School and an A.W. Beattie student, worked to program the robot brain using ROBOTC, a computer language that interacts with the platform used to control the motors.

Kornish took a C++ computer programming class at Hampton High School and used that knowledge as the basis for programming the hand, one finger at a time, starting with the thumb.

It took close to three weeks for Kornish to program the robot between the other projects he was working on.

“One of the most exciting moments in this whole project for me was when the robot gave me a thumbs up because then I knew it would just be a matter of applying the code to the other fingers,” Kornish said. “I was very excited.”

The sensors in the fingers of the glove determine where the user's fingers are based on a resistance value sent back to the brain of the robot.

It takes the highest value and lowest value, which is why a user has to open and close his or her hand to calibrate the robotic hand.

“Whenever someone puts their hand in the glove, calibrates it, then it comes to life and mimics whatever they do, it's amazing,” Burns said. “People's faces light up.”

Students created the first robotic hand as a test of the equipment.

Now they are working to create a second version that will have all of the motors contained in the arm and feature a forearm and rotating wrist.

Bish would like to see future projects include a robotic head, with cameras for the eyes, that can interact with its environment.

“This really is taking the academics they learn at their home schools (and pairing it) with hands-on education with industrial equipment with teachers who have industrial experience,” said Wesley Kuchta, principal of A.W. Beattie. “Our goal here is to prepare students to succeed when they leave our building.”

Bethany Hofstetter is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6364 or



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