Back to the future: Robotronica changed the course of Marisa’s history
Two years into her optometry studies and a call for help put Marisa on a path she’d never imagined.
Her friend, David Hedger — a mechatronics engineering student — called on anyone to help construct a troupe of robotic ‘performers’ for QUT’s Robotronica 2015 — Australia’s largest one-day robotics festival.
“Anyone who knew what a screwdriver could do was asked to help assemble robots designed to dance on stage during a Deep Blue performance,” Marisa said.
“While helping I spoke with professors and other students, and I knew then they were more… me.”
Marisa chose to reboot her career and enrolled at QUT as an engineering student majoring in mechatronics with a minor in robotics.
Skip ahead another two years to Robotronica 2017 and Marisa was helping the same friend build robots for The Travelling Garden of Life — a sci-fi performance about robots maintaining seed banks and a preservation garden in an orbiting space station.
“I was a dancer and singer growing up so building robots to dance and interact with people was fun. I got to use both halves of my brain,” Marisa said.
“I was also engineering by then so I could do more.”
Now, in her fourth and final year of undergraduate study, Marisa is working with CSIRO Data61 to develop her own robot for Robotronica.
“I’m developing the navigation algorithm for ‘Gizmo’ — a remote-controlled six-legged hexapod robot used for science and education demonstrations,” Marisa said.
“My thesis is to copy the Gizmo design and add extra sensors to get it walking on its own.”
Dubbed ‘Wizmo’ for its anticipated speed, Marisa’s robot will be capable of autonomous wandering without bumping into anything — or anyone.
Wizmo’s navigation algorithm is part of her honours thesis under the supervision of world-renowned roboticist, QUT Professor Jonathan Roberts.
“Marisa’s commitment to our Robotronica shows has been fantastic to witness,” Professor Roberts said.
“Engineers tend to be keen on delivering on their promises but sometimes that means they can miss a deadline. Engineering for public performance is an incredible experience and great way to learn under the pressure of an unmovable deadline.
“Marisa has a background in performance from her school days and so she totally understands the ‘show must go on’ attitude of professionals in the arts. This makes her an amazing engineer.”
With another six months of algorithm development ahead of her, Marisa will introduce remote-controlled versions of Wizmo and Gizmo to crowds at Robotronica — Sunday 18 August, QUT Gardens Point (9am-4pm).
The robots are the first in a growing family of CSIRO hexapods, which will soon include a lighter model called ‘Zero’.
“Zero will be made with much cheaper parts so it will be like the zero sugar version of the Gizmo range.
“We didn’t want to call it ‘Gizmo Lite’ because that name is too long.
“Robot names need to be two syllables or less because you want to be able to yell it out in frustration when it doesn’t do what you want — and, for sure — when someone walks into the room to see it, it will break.”
Marisa introduced herself to CSIRO researchers while volunteering at the QUT-hosted International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) 2018 in Brisbane.
“CSIRO offered me a vacation research project working on their DARPA Subterranean (SubT) Challenge entry. After the project they agreed to let me stay on and do my honours thesis,” Marisa said.
Marisa said she hopes to stay with CSIRO as an engineer after graduation working on practical robots before one day returning to QUT as a researcher.
“I want to make meaningful robots — not like a butler, or a doctor necessarily, but robots that make a real impact in their task, and serve a purpose,” Marisa said.
“Science education is also super-duper important and needs to happen before kids’ interest drifts away.
“Engineering is not easy. You have to work hard to get there and work hard to stay there, so the younger kids build their interest the less they will need to catch up on.
“You learn most of the fundamental maths concepts and other scientific foundations by the end of Year 10.
“I remember my teacher in Year 1 or 2 threw water on the ground and the class watched it evaporate as a simple experiment — that is still science and I still found that interesting.”
Marisa maintained her interest in science from a young age, but engineering was not on her radar during high school.
She wanted a scientific career after participating in the National Youth Science Forum but later thought optometry would be the safer career path.
When she graduated from Mount St Michael’s College in 2013, Marisa entered Optometry at QUT but says she doesn’t regret her decision to change.
“I connected with the work and people so much in engineering that it didn’t feel like a chore.
“Robotic vision was also an interesting cross-over from optometry in that it helped to know how the eye worked and translate that into a robotic capability.”
Marisa found her tribe through student-run activities like the annual Droid Racing Challenge — an autonomous vehicle competition, and has always been a part of the Robotics Club which included a stint as executive in her third year.
“Robotics Club organises a lot of introductory workshops — like CAD and PCB design — that are great for filling in the gaps from high school and what you can get done in your spare time. We also host a trivia night — that’s fun.
“I made most of my friends through the club in first year we are still friends now.
“It’s too easy to scare people away from engineering and hard to convince them it’s a good idea.
“Australia has a big robotics start-up scene but bigger companies don’t have a lot of robotics. Some are used for assembly but robotics here is still new comparably.
“It will be interesting to see what happens in the next 10 years and what the public thinks — robots are not scary terminators.”