Engineering the Future at Glasgow Clyde College

Robots made my students. Red cardboard structure

Staff and students at Glasgow Clyde College’s Engineering Department talk about how BBC’s Robot Wars is used to inspire interest in Robotics.

Internationally, the word ‘Clyde’ is synonymous with engineering – at its height, the shipbuilding industry on the Clyde employed tens of thousands of skilled workers and in the early 1900s, one in five of all ships launched had been built there.

The name of Glasgow Clyde College references that great industrial past and signals the college’s commitment to an engineering future. Robotics is clearly going to be part of that future, as robots of all kinds are being integrated into our lives and the working processes of our factories, warehouses, workplaces and even homes.

Head of Engineering at Glasgow Clyde Alistair Rodgers is keen to make sure that message reaches not only young people but school pupils as well. He recently took one of the college’s robots out to a local school in World of Work week.

“We’re lucky enough to have some examples of fighting robots straight out of the ‘Robot Wars’ stables”, he smiles, “And we’ve got staff that can build them with the students helping.”

Graham Milne is one of those staff members and shows me ‘Clyde Built’, a robot that was selected as a reserve for series 9 of the immensely popular BBC programme Robot Wars, which is filmed a short distance away in Renfrew. He also explains how much more sophisticated robotics has become in recent years, and how engineering departments have had to rise to the challenge. “Robots have become more powerful,  being built of much more robust materials and are expected to stand up to some serious competition– that’s a challenge when students are working on them.”

One example is the extremely hard steel used in their robots, which is cut with a plasma cutter. This parts the steel with a jet of hot plasma and enables a clean, fine cut.

Designing the Robot

Clyde Built didn’t make the show, however the college had another chance with Rusty, which was entered after the producers of the programme contacted lecturer Tony Smith to ask if another robot was available.

Tony is an old hand at building fighting robots and had previous experience of competing in Robot Wars. He and his Engineering Systems students worked on refurbishing and adapting an older robot that they renamed  ‘Rusty’.  Rusty was designed to be easy for students to maintain and repair. He is a wedged-shaped robot with a titanium flipper featuring  a steel scoop that could lift-up to 1200kg. “

Student Nicholas Hough was one of Rusty’s roboteers and commented: “Studying an HND in Engineering Systems has helped me understand how engineering elements combine. My course had a big input in how we designed the robot and helped us narrow down the essential elements in the creation, such as the weight. It combined all facets of electrical and mechanical engineering.

“My experience of building Rusty has exposed me to different ideas and ways of problem solving that will have a valuable impact on my future career.”

Valuable Skills

But the team had never driven the robot and their entry into the competition was a baptism of fire. Rusty faced the reigning champion Apollo and other robots in its first outing and was immobilised, going out of the contest.

Tony Smith points out that students learn valuable lessons from competing in events like Robot Wars.

“Learning how to design a robot that can withstand the treatment metered out in the Robot Wars arena is a real challenge. There’s a huge range of skills involved, from CAD (computer aided design), calculations, working with the materials, fabrication…they’re all skills that are needed in the workplace. On top of that you need to be able to help to make the programme enjoyable for the viewers, and be able to entertain the audience.” He adds that prospective competitors also develop their personal skills throughout the build and the recording of the show, “Patience and perseverance are definitely important, it can be a very frustrating and expensive hobby! There is no instruction manual for this, and no real off-the-shelf components, so it often feels like a daunting and endless task. In industry, a process like this would involve a large group of highly trained people over the course of months or years but often there is only a few people doing all of these roles and learning from experience. It’s is an excellent way to discover exactly where you want to go with your career.”

Bringing STEM Back Into the Limelight

Tony himself got into engineering purely out of an interest in fighting robots. He took a degree in Music Technology and then made a living out of designing lighting shows for bands until he enrolled as a student at Glasgow Clyde, and was then recruited to do outreach to schools. That led to him teaching robotics – and the rest was history.

“Shows like Robot Wars have brought STEM subjects back into the limelight. The programme provides an entertaining way for kids to get involved in engineering. When I first started watching the show back in the late 90’s, I was immediately hooked, I began taking apart remote control cars and trying to discover how they worked, meanwhile drawing design after design of what my own fighting robot would look like. This then evolved to scouring scrap yards for components to bring those creations together and finally, nearly 20 years later, I fulfilled my dream of appearing on the show.”

A well-known figure in the world of fighting robots, he is part of Scot-Bots, an organisation that aims to educate young people and school students in Scotland about robotics alongside fellow competitor Jamie McHarg, and the two participated  on Robot Wars with their robot Coyote.

Staff and students will be looking forward to more Clyde-built robots making their appearance in the Robot Wars to come!