Drama Lecturer Christopher Rybitski posed a challenge to the students in his J-Term course Automation and Controls for the Theatre. During his undergraduate studies at Radford University, Rybitski built a scenery moving robot driven by an X-Box 360 controller. He knew the limits of that system and challenged the students to design a scenery moving robot that could be programmed to move to precise locations on and off stage without a crew member driving it with a controller.
There are many sophisticated and expensive scenic automation systems in use in theatres, but Rybitski and his students wanted to find a cost effective solution that would work for the budgets of small non-profit theatres. It would also enable the small theatres to have a level of automation and special effects in their productions that their budgets don’t generally allow.
This is a first of its kind lab course in the Drama Department and the students collaborated on design and programming ideas and brainstormed a list of the challenges their robot would face. Since it is operated on Wi-Fi, they had to determine all of the Wi-Fi frequencies used for the sound system on the general building Wi-Fi and find frequencies they could operate on without affecting other Wi-Fi systems in use. They also realized that with cast and crew working on and off stage, there was the potential for someone or something to unintentionally be in the pre-programmed path of the robot. How could they design the robot to automatically stop if that should occur? The biggest challenge, however, is to find a way to program a specific path and location on the floor of the stage that might require the robot to travel in a path that was not a straight line.
Although the students had many ideas of how to accomplish all of these things, they agreed on one to pursue and finished their prototype of the locating technology on the last day of J-Term. The department will continue developing the prototype in the months to come. More photos of the prototype build and testinng can be found here.