Course Profile

Goals of the Course

Robotics is a growing field with significant impact on many aspects of our world. It is an area of enhanced interest for students and combines aspects from all the science disciplines. The course will explore design and construction aspects of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV, quad copters).

In order to tap in to real expertise the course enlisted the aid of NOVA engineers. This a community of engineers in northern VA that have built a maker space so that people in the area could pursue their interest. These engineers are running the class via the internet. We have shared internet space [dropbox] for course material. The engineers can remotely instruct via linked projectors and cameras. The Webex software is also used as a method to connect students and NOVA engineers.

Who is it designed for?

Science, math, engineering, computer science are the main targets but a student with a background in electronics, robotics, or programming could be enrolled by contacting the JMU liaison for the course.

Learning Objectives

As an applied course there is a broad scope that allows students to learn various aspects of robotics:

  • Programming
  • Instrumentation
  • Sensors
  • Feedback
  • PID
  • Flight control and issues of stability, location, and other flight control problems
  • Basic skills= wiring, soldering, mechanical structures
  • Tools available for robotics control

Maker skills it develops

  • Laser cutting
  • Mechanical tools such as drill presses
  • Electrical tools: oscilloscopes, DVM, soldering

Since the goal is to build a UAV and fly the robot there is a full spectrum of tools etc that can be employed from mechanical construction, assembly and debugging and testing. To start the course a small balancing trough was constructed and the students could use whatever resources, that they found effective in building this system. There were sonar rangers added so that the final configuration would move the trough in order to keep a ball in the center.


The course is designed for scientists and students should have familiarity with some aspect of the project. Since the students work in groups areas that are unfamiliar to one student can be provided by a team member.

Skills, Tools and Technologies Used

The students should posess some related background knowledge but students may bring different skill sets. As described the construction and programming require multiple skills so that students can strenghten and/or learn new skills.

Key Examples and Prior Work

Since the engineers are operating from the NOVA maker space they are well aware of the possibilites available. The course is run in the JMU physics department and although our labs are typically not considered maker spaces the resources available to the students include most of the equipment in a usual maker space: tools, machine shop, 3d printers, electrical instrumentation, computers and software.

Key Resources

Each week an information packet is shared via a drop box folder that may contain explicit instructions, libraries, video examples, explanation in the form of documents and power point displays. 

Example Assignment

First step was to construct from thin sheet a trough that contained a ball that was mounted on a central pivot. An Arduino, sonic range sensor and servo motor were integrated so as to move the trough so as to keep the ball in the center (feedback, sensors, progamming0

Next a sophisticated quad copter is built using available components. This required soldering, assembly, sensors, sensor calibration, familiarity with a basic flight control platform, debugging and testing. Several aspects of general flight control problems are explored.

Lessons Learned

Outside of the academic areas explored, there are interesting problems in delivering the material and effective oversight since the primary instructors are interfacing with the students primarily using network technology (projectors, cameras, audio tools, and beam robot). Each week new tools are explored and evaluated in terms of effectiveness, reliability and ease of use.