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Video Modular Science is Building Hardware and Software for Lab Automation (Video) 6

Modular Science is something Tim Lord spotted at last month's O'Reilly Solid Conference in San Francisco. Its founder, Peter Sand, has a Ph.D. in Computer Science from MIT. He's scheduled to speak at this year's OSCON, and his speaker blurb for that conference says, "He is the founder of ManyLabs, a nonprofit focused on teaching math and science using sensors and simulations. Peter also founded Modular Science, a company working on hardware and software tools for science labs. He has given talks at Science Hack Day, Launch Edu, and multiple academic conferences, including SIGGRAPH." And now he's also been interviewed on Slashdot. Note that there are plenty of lab automation systems out there. Peter is working on one that is not only "an order of magnitude cheaper" than similar devices, but is also easy to modify and expand. It's the sort of system that would fit well not just in a college-level lab, but in a high school lab or a local makerspace. (Alternate Video Link)

Tim: Peter, what is it that we’re looking at here. It’s very interesting looking kind of a stationary robot here.

Peter: Yeah, it’s a machine for a biology lab that has a pipetter, it can pick up vials, it’s got a centrifuge, so it’s a machine for doing what you would do on a biology workbench.

Tim: Now why this machine? What does it bring that other machines in a biology that don’t?

Peter: Well, the main advantage of it is that it’s more modular, more hackable, more open. So that you can modify it easily to do whatever experiments you want to do. There’s a lot of existing robots for biology labs, but they’re lot more expensive; they’re say $100,000, and they’re proprietary. They have closed interfaces. It’s very hard to change them if you want to. So that’s why what we’re trying to do is make it easier to modify and customize these machines.

Tim: Can you talk about what its capabilities are?

Peter: So this particular machine it can do pipetting, it can pick up vials, it can take the lid off of a vial. And it can do centrifuging, so these are all sort of basic building blocks of a biology lab procedure.

Tim: What sort of components does it take to make all that happen, what are your hardware, what are your software?

Peter: Yeah. So, it’s mainly based on Arduinos and stepper motors and stepper motor drivers. There’s an Arduino for each degree of freedom and those are talking to the coders, checking limit switches, driving the motors and those are all talking to each other in a serial chain to a computer, and the computer is monitoring the overall state of machine and telling you what to do next.

Tim: Now I understand you use machine vision for some of the tests like locating vials.

Peter: Yes.

Tim: How is it integrated?

Peter: So there’s a camera inside the middle of the machine here, and that’s just connected by USB all the way back to the computer and then I’m using OpenCV and custom C++ code to process the imagery from that, so it’s able to identify different vials by their color and also see how the work space has been rearranged.

Tim: What are some of the new spaces that the machine like this could be used for?

Peter: There’s all kinds of biology procedures that involve pipetting, centrifuging often going back and forth between centrifuging, pipetting, waiting a little bit, adding in a few more components, so those kinds of procedures where it’s doing something over and over again, it’s the same procedure you want to do 10 times or everyday for a week. It could also be something which requires paying very close attention, you want to do it 96 different ways and this thing can do that as well.

Tim: You mentioned that this seems to be about an order of magnitude cheaper than similar type of devices?

Peter: Yes.

Tim: What if you wanted to do other things that this – the capability set you’ve got is a starter.

Peter: Yeah, yeah.

Tim: But I see you have sort of cheeseboard on here, you’ve got attachment points everywhere, does that mean you can add new capabilities?

Peter: Yes, yes, that’s what it’s all about is that you can build your own modules or third-parties could sell modules. We’ll provide open interfaces for the electronics, for the software, open APIs, so you can easily integrate whatever other hardware you have or find or create into this device.

Tim: How about the hardware design itself, will you also open source that or is that sort of, what you will be selling?

Peter: Yeah. I mean, we’re still figuring that out, I think that most of the design will be open, it’s just using off-the-shelf maker DIY components, so there’s really nothing to hide here, I mean, you can easily see how everything is put together.

Tim: It looks very medical office with...

Peter: Yes.

Tim: aluminum and acrylic here.

Peter: Yes, yes.

Tim: Why those materials?

Peter: Partly because they’re sterile, that they’re not going to – you can work directly on them, they are not going rust, and also they look nice, they’re easy to work with. It’s what I’m used to working with.

Tim: These parts here, are they all laser cut or how have you created all this, all the attachment points here?

Peter: Yeah, it’s all done with a laser cutter, we actually designed it all using Illustrator and just got all the parts laser cut.

Tim: What else should people know about this? Maybe that’s a bad question.

Peter: Yeah.

Tim: Let me ask a different thing. How does this differ from a lot of other devices here that are for let’s say printing out things and making at this point, a lot of people complain that 3D printers are good for making trinkets but not much else, do you have a different level of quality here, how would you distinguish?

Peter: Yeah, I mean, one of the things that we’re really going to focus on as we develop this is the reliability, in that we’re using DIY maker equipment, but we want to have more reliability than a 3D printer that you have at home, because biologists have biology to do, they can’t be always adjusting and tuning and tinkering with the hardware. So we’re really going to stress automated testing and making sure these are really robust before we send them out.

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Modular Science is Building Hardware and Software for Lab Automation (Video)

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  • by Jameson Burt ( 33679 ) on Saturday June 21, 2014 @06:04AM (#47287611)

    Particularly for schools, Vernier Software and Technology, has continually added sensors, now about 60 sensors, over the last 33 years.
    Some sensors include carbon dioxide, water flow, radiation, respiration, soil moisture, spectrometer, UV.
    I have about 20 of them for my child at home, and hope to get the blood pressure sensor for myself.
    Being for schools, they are the least expensive sensors I've seen.
    All these sensors plug into their Labquest 2 interface (or one of their older interfaces) which looks more like a smartphone with touch screen, WiFi, Bluetooth, and several device ports. Top 10 ranking high schools like Thomas Jefferson High School in Fairfax county use these, though that high school has also had genetic sequencers for the last 15 years.

    I'm glad to see competition, but one should never overlook what has dominated this arena for decades.

Order and simplification are the first steps toward mastery of a subject -- the actual enemy is the unknown. -- Thomas Mann