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Page last updated: 8/23/2017

Commentary by S.D. Kaehler

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8/19/17: This month's meeting kicks off these monthly commentaries which I hope to do regularly and a time of reflection for me about the SRS. The Seattle Robotics Society has been around since 1982 and has experienced tremendous technological changes in robots, particularly hobby robotics over that time. Building robots in the early eighties through the nineties took a lot of ingenuity, creativity, and determination since you couldn't just go out and buy a robot kit from a store. Intrepid members of the club figured out how to make robots from surplus electronic parts, from Radio Shack kits, from bits and pieces of stuff lying around their garages. They designed and shared tools and development environments for writing software and then getting it onto their robots. Some of these early efforts blossomed into products that helped smooth the way for what are now common items that take most of the pain out of the process of building and programming a robot. However the some of the same challenges still exist for the average person, because to build and program even a kit robot requires at least some mechanical aptitude plus software engineering. Writing the software is still the most difficult piece for most non-software people (like me). The goal of the Society has been and is to provide a forum for tapping people who have this and other useful skills in the robot disciplines and avail them to people who don't. In general it's "easier" to build robots now than ever before, but it's still not "easy". The Society can still be a resource to help people getting started, but we must ask ourselves "What is the Seattle Robotic Society's mission today and in the future?" and "What can the Society do to be relevant and purposeful today given the modern playing field of robotics?"

I posed some questions to the meeting attendees asking about the purpose and function of the Society and what they all want to get out of meetings and more importantly, out of belonging to the club? Our meetings are a social gathering, convey information about robotics and technology, about what individuals who choose to share are doing, and about club activities like our annual Robothon event, but can and should there be more? What else could/should we be doing? Jim W. suggested that the Society build and send a robot to the moon. This is certainly a grand, ambitious, gigantic challenge technically, administratively, and logistically, but it would be pretty cool if we could pull it off. Such a project would "put the SRS on the map" and garner us attention like we've never had before, but it would be really hard and would take a tremendous level of commitment by a significant number of members, especially those willing to lead the project to a successful conclusion. Do we have the will and resources to do such a thing? I don't know. Do you?

This discussion then launched several folks into "design mode", talking about how this might be done, essentially starting to solve some of the technical problems. Society members are really good at this. It also stirred up folks like Tom C. who thinks Society resources are better spent on things "down here" rather than sending things "up there". He proposed a project like an elder care/assistant robot that would enable people to maintain their independence longer by serving as a companion and task helper, doing simple chores around the home for people who can't do them themselves. This also launched another "design discussion" that I had to curb to get back to the meeting agenda. Big projects can be be both unifying and divisive to a group as this discussion illustrated, showing on a small scale a debate that our country has had regarding resource allocation between advancing space exploration (up there) and addressing important social needs (down here). I think both are important but for different reasons yet the bigger challenge is finding a single project that most people would support.

These lively and interesting discussions didn't really answer the broader question of the Society's purpose and mission now compared to the past, but they showed me that the Society is still made up of very intelligent and thoughtful people who love challenges. I believe continuing to help beginners get started in robotics is still appropriate but I can see that this may not be enough for those who are past that stage. Collective group projects centered around contests have happened but have also failed for lack of committed leadership and dedicated followers. We have a pretty good contest lineup for Robothon now that has grown out of these kinds of activities in the past. Perhaps having mini-Robothon events (practice contests) throughout the year at the Fieldhouse could help, but folks need to build robots and participate to justify the effort involved in arranging them. One plus supporting this option is that all the Robothon equipment is now stored at the Fieldhouse and so is readily available during meetings.

Several people bought SRS Workshop Robot kits and wondered about workshops after the meetings. We haven't done them for a while because no one was staying for them. They aren't organized right now since a responsible person needs to be present for the duration to see that the facility gets secured. Getting these workshops going again (starting right after each meeting and running until about 4PM) is one of my near-term goals plus this will help me work on my robots. We might be able to secure a large storage container at the Fieldhouse to store gear for our workshops, but meeting at the Fieldhouse between third Saturdays would be difficult, especially when the warehouse is being used during FIRST competition season.

Visibility of the Society on the web was discussed. Several first-time visitors said they didn't find the Society easily. Now if you do a Google search on "seattle robot", the Society's homepage perks to the top of the list, but how would one find the Seattle Robotics Society if they didn't use "robot" or some variation of it in the search? I took the liberty of adding an extensive meta-tag keyword list to the home page which should help once the webcrawlers digest it. Sometimes people find out about us by word-of-mouth or references to the Society in other places or publications. I encourage all members to share our name and activities on other forums they encounter. Perhaps the Society needs to have a broader footprint on the web since we have members who are, for example, deeply into 3D Printing and its applications. Robotics can touch many different things so perhaps we need to be less about robots and more about technology application that can but doesn't have to touch robotics.

If you have comments or opinions on this commentary, please email me at SeattleRoboticsSociety (a) Gmail.com.

SRS Weblog for 9/16/17 meeting.