Bolt! from Victoria University is quite the speedy gonzalez

Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov laid down the law of robotics which govern how to deal with the existence of robots. His last law – a robot may not harm humanity, or by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm, still resonates well today.

Robots, as it turns out, can be put to good use, provided there is the know how.

In 2013, Victoria University’s engineering students built a mining robot, Michelangelo, which swept top prize at the Australasian engineering students’s battle-of-the-robots event, the Australasian National Instruments Autonomous Robotics Competition.

The pic above belongs to the Australian National Instruments Autonomous Robotics Competition folks

Bolt!

This year, they built a speedy gonzalez, Bolt! which did not win the top prize but the best design award. The specs for this year’s challenge was agriculture, meaning robots were competing to solve challenges in the farming setting, such as collecting seeds, depositing them in the planting area and navigating through obstacles on the farm.

Team leader Robby Lopez says the team achieved major engineering milestones to get the robot ready for competition.

“Solving the problems created by the more complex design was a nightmare but after seeing the test results we're happy that we went the extra mile,” says Lopez.

Lopez and his team might have a winning solution for a farmer somewhere looking for a fast machine to do light farm jobs, but he and his team mates comprising engineering and computer science folks - Michael Pearson, Alex Campbell, Mayur Panchal, Henry Williams, Ryan Wolstenholme – have no plans to take the robot further.

They are really stoked with the marketing and publicity opportunities Bolt!  gave them and remain happy to let the robots serve as education or inspiration for other students.

And the future for robot is...

Check out National Geographic's feature on termite-inspired robots

Wait, if you are wondering why Lopez and his team are not taking either Michelangelo (who remains unchallenged) and Bolt! any further, so are we.

We asked Stefan Korn, the CEO at Wellington’s startup base, CreativeHQ, whether these students have the potential to take the project beyond the ivory towers.

He was impressed by the highly talented students but notes New Zealand, generally suffers from the inability to commercialise developments arising out of university.

“At CreativeHQ we enable bright people to build brilliant businesses by nourishing entrepreneurial talent, and these student fit our purpose, we are very pleased with what they have achieved.”

He says there are a lot of missed opportunities, as the structures that are in place are not set up to enable these developments and technologies to go further. 

According to Korn, the Victoria University students have the potential to capitalise on their developments and skills, as there is high demand in various New Zealand markets for various digital-based applications.

He says there are other models to follow that would encourage research from universities to become more open to commercial applications from third parties, based on certain pre-agreed conditions.

One option is the licensing model which enables companies to tap into the knowledge and channel money that is made back into the university but New Zealand “is not quite there yet”, Korn says.

He adds: "The thought has always been, ‘if we could only produce more milk and focus on agriculture'. But I think that’s the downfall, we need to start improving the other sectors for New Zealand’s future, its an unfortunate situation at the moment. “

CreativeHQ currently has The Victoria Entrepreneur boot camp, a programme linked with the university that concentrates on working with students to further develop their ideas and take them into the corporate world. 

The programme provides students with a framework and structure that enables them to turn their ideas into more useful business concepts. 

“It’s not a natural skill to make something into a business, they either waste a lot of time or money because they don’t understand what the corporate world is about.  If the idea is not viable in the commercial world then we help them with tactics around such issues,” says Korn. 

The Boot camp begins on the 17 November 2014, and runs for 14 weeks until the end of February 2015.  The programme is open to all Victoria university students through the Vic-Link site