Robots on the PGA Tour?

Aug 20, 2004

One day, the PGA might see robots playing on the regular tour.

Sound bizarre and unbelievable? Perhaps. But at Kettering University, a group of high school students recently worked with Fanuc robots in Kettering's Computer Integrated Manufacturing (CIM) Laboratory to see how well robots can putt a golf ball.

The putting began when Lucy King, professor of Manufacturing Engineering at Kettering and director of the CIM, received a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant of $10,000 for this summer to undertake research into Internet robotic control. This grant supported the research and work of Mike McIntyre, a high school teacher who teaches at the Oakland Schools Technical Campus Northeast in Pontiac, Mich. The NSF funding also supported a two-day event Aug. 17-18 at Kettering for high school-aged students called "Robotics Exploration." This program gives local students a chance to see first-hand how companies design and program robots.

One of the most important aspects of this research and workshop is the participation of a high school teacher, which helps expose young students to robots and manufacturing engineering to inspire kids to pursue this field at the college level. The goal, according to McIntyre, is to show high school students how to communicate with robots through computers at their high school. His research and work at Kettering is helping him prepare a curriculum for his Introduction to Robotics and Flowcharting class that meets specific state and national education standards for technology and science. The objectives of this curriculum include the ability of students to


  • demonstrate proficiency at using a computer with Internet access to conduct a structured search of a topic;
  • create a task list and flowchart to organize a series of programming steps;
  • identify at least three advantages and disadvantages to using robots in place of humans; and
  • apply the definition of a robot to ascertain whether or not a particular machine is classified as a robot.

This curriculum, in conjunction with the two-day workshop, builds interest and enthusiasm in students to study manufacturing engineering before they attend college, which represents an important approach in preparing future engineers for the professional engineering environment well before they enroll in college. The workshop is crucial, given the current environment in the U.S. with regard to the shortage of engineers, scientists and technicians in the country. More importantly, American companies may be the beneficiaries of this work, since exposing students to engineering activities that are fun and teach students about robotics and automation well before they even attend college could in fact increase the pool of qualified engineers who will eventually graduate from college. Kettering faculty members and McIntyre led the workshop, which provided students an environment of practical application about robotics and automation.

Robotics exploration gives students a first step in learning about automation, since the study of robotics often generates enthusiasm for such subjects as design, engineering, physics and electronics. Students control a robot at Kettering through a computer network on campus. But gaining the interest of students to go into this field is tricky, and thus requires approaches that combine practical theory and application with projects that students find fun.

"One of the neat things about our work is that high school students will have direct exposure to how industry prepares for product manufacturing," explained King.

The workshop consisted of students playing mini-golf with the Fanuc robots. Specifically, students design the process that activates the robots to grasp and raise the golf ball, place it on a tee, grasp a club and strike the ball in hopes that it will roll into the makeshift cup.

King realizes that such an activity may not appear on the surface to connect with manufacturing engineering. But, she said, the picking and placing of the golf ball "is a real industrial application in accurately grasping and positioning work parts onto a fixture or a machine," she noted. She also said that the grasping of the putter emulates the careful and precise orientation and contact process required in industrial assembly operations. Additionally, the putt motion by the robot requires careful scientific calculation of the amount of force necessary, which translates to a combination of putter weight, speed with which the putter must strike the ball and the direction in which the putter must hit the ball. The result?

"Young students gain experience in real industrial application and have fun while doing it," King said. "The rate at which they learn is fast, painless and efficient, because they are engaging and using the robots in an activity geared toward having some fun with the equipment."

The two-day workshop also exposed students to FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a robotics competition in which teams of high school students work with professional engineers from partner companies to build a robot for competition. Teams go head-to-head in full contacts contests which help inspire students to pursue scientific and technological careers. FIRST provides a showcase and celebration of the creativity of students and the two-day "Robotics Exploration" event prepares them to join high school robotics teams.

Kettering expects to run a workshop again in October with students at the Oakland Manufacturing Technology Academy.

For more information, contact Dr. Lucy King at (810) 762-9500, ext. 5609, or via e-mail at To register, contact the Office of Minority Student Affairs at (800) 955-4464, ext. 5677.

Written by Gary Erwin
(810) 762-9538