Engineering students on two continents are receiving a helping hand with their coursework during their first socially-distanced semester.

Students at campuses in China and Scotland are adapting to remote working by taking control of a sophisticated robot arm to help them learn the basics of circuit design.

It’s the result of design and programming work by engineers at the University of Glasgow and their counterparts at the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China (UESTC) in Chengdu. The collaboration is part of the international partnership between the University of Glasgow and UESTC to deliver undergraduate degree programmes in China.

The robot itself is located in the James Watt South building on the University of Glasgow’s Gilmorehill campus. It’s been made available for students on UESTC’s Circuit Analysis and Design course to use initially, with Glasgow students being given the chance to try the arm ahead of it being integrated into teaching in the near future.

Researchers from the University of Glasgow developed new software to allow students to book time with the robot and to operate it remotely to complete tasks they would normally do themselves in the lab. The robot hardware itself is called the Panda. Developed by Franka Emika in Germany, it is designed to offer fine-grained control in a wide range of applications.

In this case, the robot arm is helping students build circuits as part of their coursework. Using the software the team developed, students can pre-program the path the arm will take to pick up parts, place them and connect them to complete circuits. Their work will be graded by teaching staff just as it would be if they had completed it with their own hands.

The team are also investigating the possibility of making the arm fully user-controlled via webcam. They hope that further work could translate the fine details of students moving their arms in front of their computers into movements of the robot arm, allowing direct real-time control.

Dr Guodong Zhao, lecturer in Systems Power and Energy at the University of Glasgow, is one of the leads of the project. He said: “It’s important that we try to give students as much of the experience of hands-on learning as we can, even during a pandemic where everyone is being advised to keep their hands to themselves as much as possible.

“This pilot project is a step towards our goal of helping to realise ‘Education 4.0’ – integrating AI, robotics and other technology into the classroom. It opens up a lot of possibilities for teaching not just during this difficult time but also, once some normality is restored to everyday life, allowing students to complete practical work in the lab from anywhere in the world, at any time.”

Course leaders expect more than 60 students in Scotland and China to have had the chance to use the arm by the end of the semester.

Ziwen Li, a second year undergraduate student at Glasgow College UESTC in China, is one of the first batch of students to use the robot. He said: “The remote circuit labs have been great so far – the robot has helped me have a really good learning experience and I’m keen to do more in the future.

“Just as importantly, I’ve also gained experience of operating a robot at the same time as advancing my circuit design studies. It’s a new skill and one I wasn’t expecting to develop during my undergraduate studies. I’m sure it will be useful in my future career.”

Adeife Jolaosho, an undergraduate student in College of Science and Engineering at University of Glasgow, is one of the first students in Glasgow to use the robot. He said: “I’ve really enjoyed using the robot to conduct a lab experiment because I can learn the technical content very fast without spending a lot of time on putting circuit components together. It’s been an amazing experience for me – I feel like was able to get a glimpse of a future that I want to get involved in.”

While the robot arm is set to be used solely for teaching a single course for this semester, the team are already planning to expand its capabilities by integrating it into the University of Glasgow’s 5G communications testbed, supported by the Scotland 5G Centre.

Professor Muhammad Imran, Professor of Communication Systems at the University and a Dean of the University of Glasgow UESTC, said: “The speed of digital communication that 5G provides is remarkable, and opens up many new possibilities for ‘telepresence’, with an almost instant connection between systems anywhere in the world.

“That could mean that lecturers might not need to travel around the world in the future to give lectures. Instead, using direct control of robots with zero-lag connections, they could have a physical presence in the lab from the other side of the world.

“We’re excited to explore the possibilities the 5G testbed offers us to shrink the distances between physical spaces, and we’re looking forward to adding new capabilities to this already very promising system.”