Dr Tim Drysdale – a tour of the open engineering lab

So Tim, this is the Open Engineering Lab. It’s a bright, new, shiny facility that you’re in charge of. Can you tell me a
little bit about what goes on in here? Absolutely, we’ve just added an
electronics flavour to our general engineering degree, that starts in
September, and this lab has the practical work for that course in it. There are six
instruments here. Is that part of the module then, that the students will be
will be doing? Yes, on our course we’re going to take students through the
process of system level thinking in electronics. We want to make them
well-rounded engineers, and that means we need to start them off with sensing. So
they’re going to use this board here, to look at light and strain, and then we’re
going to take them to a board that, believe it or not, models what happens
when an autonomous car comes up to a junction and needs to figure out which
way to go and what obstacles to avoid. So a smart car in real life? Absolutely. So
the students will get to play with that, and then once they’ve understood how to
get information from the real world, we need to show them how to make decisions with it. So we’re going to let them loose on this digital board and that shows
them how you can decide and choose courses of action. And once they’ve done
that they then have to make those courses of action real. So we bring them
over to this board which has different types of motors on it that represent all
the different ways you might want to control something in the real world. And
if you put those three things together: the sensing, the logic, and the actuators,
then even your wildest imaginations can take on practical form. So we’ve got the
experiments but there doesn’t appear to be a lot of room for students in here Tim. How are you going to make that work? Absolutely, look, I’m actually going to
lock the door. I’m not even going to let the students into the room at all.
Instead they’re going to access it using a web browser. So we’ve got some cameras here so that they can see the equipment, we’ve squeezed every last drop of delay
out of that video feed and the control that they’ll have is as absolute. They’ll
be able to do everything they need to do with the equipment and it’s going to be
happening in real time, just as it was if they were in the room. All over the world?
Absolutely. I was in Austin last week and I swear the link there was just about as
fast as it is from my office. That’s brilliant! So there’s just the six
instruments here, but I believe that around the corner you’ve got things going on on a
grander scale? Absolutely. The very first experiment’s a pendulum, and the intent
behind that is to make a somewhat abstract concept of a sine wave take
on a concrete practical form just to get students used to it, so we can go forward
into the abstract world of electronics on a solid foundation. And here we have 30 of them all laid out. This is amazing! So you’re telling me that an individual
student is operating their machine from their own home?
Absolutely. Each of these experiments will belong to the student for a whole
hour, or more slots if they wish, and that means they can do what they like with it
for that whole time. How many students can you cater for then?
Well we’ve got eleven racks like this one, and that means we’re up and running
at full strength, with other courses involved, we will be able to serve 4,752
individual, hour-long experiments, in a single day. That’s remarkable! What made
you then bring this technology in particular to the OU? Well, the thing
that connects students to this is the same sort of thing that’s going on in
the world. It’s a connected world now, so our students are actually at the
vanguard of understanding how to operate in an engineering environment, where
they’re probably not going to be in the same time zone as their collaborators
let alone the same building. Tim, it’s brilliant! and I’m definitely going to
come back and see you again when the whole place is up and running. Fantastic!

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