Robots that play musical instruments

We work in a rather interesting building. There are Judo lessons and table tennis tournaments(with judges and everything) here at night. A large brass band practices next to my office in the atrium on some evenings. The same space is used for autonomous robot soccer tournaments at times. So I was a bit surprised but not taken aback when I saw someone walk past my office with a scuba tank a while ago. In any other office such an event might be startling. But here, where I’ve gotten many an evening coffee while surrounded by people in judogi or tried to concentrate as the intro to the Lion King was played ten times in succession(they should lose that one trumpeter), it was not so surprising.

By chance I later came upon the man with his scuba tank and what I saw was a small group of people working on a lot of tubes, actuators and hardware. This group was TeamDARE. TeamDARE is a group of university friends that work in technical and engineering jobs. In their spare time they make robots that play musical instruments. They then enter these robots in the Artemis Orchestra Contest. This contest seeks to motivate teams to create musical robots so that at one point they can form a robot orchestra together. This orchestra could then play “multi-instrument” pieces of music, together. At that point TeamDARE was preparing their robots for the competition in Nice and I’ve just learned that they actually won the contest! 

TeamDARE has two musical robots a guitar playing one and a drum set. The drum kit has a lot of actuators including my favorite one, the “high hat” clamp, shown above right.

When I took my pictures they were busy working on the conductor interface. This was a motion sensitive camera that had to relay the movement of the conductor to the instrumental robots. The robots get their music from midi files also but can respond to direction by the conductor. They engineered to be effective and inexpensive. 

The other robot plays the guitar. The system works with compressed air because mechanical parts that operated via another method would produce too much noise. The air is supplied by the SCUBA tank I saw the gentleman walk past my office with.

The music that comes out of the robots is really good, comparable to a human player. I actually felt myself tap and sway along to the jazz at one point. Apparently musician is yet another profession that is not robot-proof. The most amazing thing about the entire enterprise though is that it was done by a few people in their spare time, for very little money. Compare this to Toyota and Honda’s billion dollar projects to make humanoid robots, that can also play the violin. I know that the humanoid robot is a lot of people’s dream and that Asimov’s stories would be a lot less entertaining if it featured Roomba-like devices but I can’t help but wonder if lots of small cheap task specific robots could not be more efficient. A $250,000 robot that can climb stares is really cool but why not just have cheaper ones that can not, for each floor?

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