Interview

Meet Dr. Lucy Rogers: the extraordinary IoT and Raspberry Pi Jammer who loves to hack dinosaurs

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In June, I had the pleasure of attending one of Lucy Rogers’ Hack a Dinosaur Raspberry Pi Jams held at the Blackgang Chine Theme Park on the Isle of Wight. It was a terrific experience sitting down with an eclectic group of Makers – ranging from novice developers, to Master Inventors, programmers, and several rocket scientists – gathered together to make a day of wiring up things – from dinosaurs to LED lights, using Raspberry Pis and Node-RED.

Afterwards, I had a chance to sit down with Makertorium Ltd. owner and Dino Jam organizer, Dr. Lucy Rogers to learn more about how she has been integrating and evolving her interests in building and connecting things with science, technology, engineering and IoT.

Question: What inspired you to get involved in engineering?

Lucy Rogers: I’m a mechanical engineer by training – having obtained a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering at Lancaster University. I first became interested in engineering when I was 17 and my physics teacher suggested I attend an engineering insight course that was run by an organization called Women in Science and Engineering. The reason why my physics teacher suggested I attend the engineering course was due to my involvement with a school club called the Great Egg Race.

The Great Egg Race was based on a 1980s TV program where a group of people would come together to use the equipment in the lab to make a Heath Robinson or Rube Goldberg type of contraption whose entire purpose was to move a common chicken’s egg from one point of the room to another. I remember quite vividly setting a party popper off while trying to push a little trolley down a ramp. The trolley was supposed to go down the ramp, hit the stool that my party popper was sitting on, and set it off. When I finally managed it, the popper went off nearly hitting my teacher in the face. That was when he looked at me and  declared I had won the round.

From very early on I have been interested in combining practical things with fun things. It was that mentality that ultimately lead me to my engineering degree at university.

Question: You studied mechanical engineering, but you are now involved with electronics. That’s a big switch. Can you tell us when and how you started to explore the world of electronics?

Lucy Rogers: When I was at university I did take a couple of electronics and computing modules. I found it all to be black magic. It seemed beyond me and I didn’t like it, which is why I stuck with mechanical engineering. As much as I wanted to make things and do things that involved electronics and computing, it seemed out of my reach.

Question: It is clear you overcame your initial reticence. What brought about the change?

Lucy Rogers: Many years after I graduated, I was introduced to the Raspberry Pi and an Arduino. That was when the light-bulb went on – literally. It was the Raspberry Pi that really helped unravel the mystery.

Question: What prompted you to start using Raspberry Pi and Node-RED together?

Lucy Rogers: I started to follow Andy Stanford-Clark through Twitter. Andy had been tweeting about Node RED and saying it was an easy way to program. When I installed Node-RED and realized it was just drag and drop, all of a sudden programming things become simple.

Question: That’s pretty cool. What was the first project or device you connected using Node-RED?

Lucy Rogers: My first project was comprised of a rubber ear – the theatrical kind. I got myself a set of rubber ears hooked them up to some lights because I wanted to be able to say ‘My ears are burning’ when someone tweeted at me.

I created an input that said look for my name on Twitter, connected it to a GPO pin and an LED and hooked that on a little clip and the LED around my ear. When someone tweeted me, my ears burnt. That was my first introduction to actually using hardware and software together. So it’s all thanks to Andy Stanford-Clark, who introduced me to that and got me going there.

All of a sudden, what I initially thought was out of my reach – electronics and computing– became possible. What I realized was that using a Raspberry Pi and Node-RED together was magical, not black magic.

Question: You are very active in the maker community – which has really started to take off in recent years. Have you always been a ‘maker’ – interested in putting things together, understanding how they work?

Lucy Rogers: I’ve always been hands on. Ever since I was a small child I’ve been making things. I got a carpentry set for my seventh birthday. To me making things was second nature – it is what I did. I am a DIY person. I’ve made all sorts of gadgets or stuff.

When I first discovered The Maker community in 2011, I was incredibly excited because it was a place I could bring together two passions – crafts and engineering. For many people, these are two different worlds. As far as I can see, because not many people who are crafters have got the electronics or engineering experience and not many people with the engineering skills have got the crafting experience, being in a forum that helps to fuse the two together is fantastic. Wonderful things happen when you combine the interests.

So the Maker communities, which really started as far as we’re aware with the electronics experts and computer experts wanting to make things, has just exploded into the whole craft area. I’ve now helped set up several Google groups that put people in different areas working together, talking with each other. The collaboration is where the real magic starts. When you experience that kind of open collaborative community, it really makes things special.

For example, I was working on a project for a few months, but during the last couple of weeks I had another engineer come and work with me. And the amount of work that we did in those two weeks because we were sparking off each other, it was like, “Oh, you’ve made that, yes. And could you do this as well?” Whereas before I was thinking, “Okay, I’ve made that.” And it was ending there. So the community – the Maker community – is absolutely brilliant.

Honestly, I wouldn’t have been able to do my Node-RED programming right from the beginning or even set up a Raspberry Pi if someone hadn’t been there effectively or virtually hand holding me through Twitter, answering my questions.

Everyone is really cooperative and collaborative within the maker community. The idea is that knowledge and innovation don’t have to be closed. The attitude has moved away from “Oh, no, I know this and I’ve worked hard many years to learn how to do this. You can’t have any of it.” It’s now, “No, look, let’s share. Let’s – what can we make together?”

The Maker community is so much greater than the sum of its parts.

Question: Can you talk a little about what kinds of workshops you’ve been running?

Lucy Rogers: Oh nothing really… just Node-RED on Robot Wars! I tweet and blog a lot about what I’m making and what I’m doing. As a result, I’ve been invited to give workshops for a wide array of people, ranging from 7 year old children to members of the British Computer Society. Using Raspberry Pi’s and a set of model traffic lights, together we very quickly start programming the traffic lights. When I’m working with children I set them the challenge, then I show them how they can do a few things, and let them play. With the adults I do something pretty similar, but I set slightly harder challenges, and am a bit stricter with how we work on things.

No matter what the age group, the reaction from the participants when they’ve connected their first devices is always one of glee. To watch a bunch of 7 year olds high five each other when they get something right is great. But to watch 60 year olds high five each other is even better!

Question: That brings us nicely to the next question about what you are doing in IoT – how you are connecting different things, different devices and what does the Internet of Things means to you?

Lucy Rogers: Although my first project with the Raspberry Pi and Node-RED was lighting up an LED when someone tweeted me, what I really wanted to do was connect things to the Internet of Things using my Raspberry Pi. However, because motors draw too much current, I couldn’t connect directly to the GPIO pins on the Raspberry Pi. I ended up designing an open collector driver – a small piece of electronics which I used time and time again.

I then made a PCB with this open collector driver on it that enabled me to just grab that piece and use it instead of actually having to wire up more electronics. From there I connected a toy dinosaur, programming it to react when someone tweeted me.

I moved on from the toy dinosaurs and started working with larger dinosaurs at Blackgang Chine Theme Park on the Isle of Wight – eventually programming them to be more responsive and interactive to park visitors using sensors.

Question: Can you talk a little bit about your recent endeavor with robots?

Lucy Rogers: I have had great fun being one of the judges on BBC Robot Wars. Many of the competitors are not engineers in their day jobs. However, they have taught themselves the skills and knowledge to make fighting robots that are reliable, robust and controllable. Some of them did this by watching YouTube videos. Some have found out the hard way that you need to prototype and try some things to find out if they work. Wooden robots are great for prototypes and are quite simple to make but not so good when being attacked by hammers and spinners. Just like the maker community, the robot fighting community is amazing. In the arena it is war, but in the pits, people are helping each other, giving each other kit and discussing problems. The camaraderie is amazing. The rivalry is true, but it is always good-natured, which does not always come across on the screen.

Question: Do you have any advice for novice developers and would be engineers?

Lucy Rogers: As a mechanical engineer, I understand the beginners mindset when it comes to electronics. During the workshops, when people are actually trying to make things work or connect their thing to the internet for an Internet of Things device, I can empathize with their point of view rather than thinking, “Well, it’s obvious. You always just type this piece of code in.”

I’ve had to learn – and quite recently relearn – how to do the same coding. Not having grown up with it, helps me to relate to beginners, which in turn helps the beginners to feel more confident, less worried about mistakes, and more keen on inventing or creating something. I use my beginners mind-set to help people who are not natural programmers or electronics experts, but people with a logical brain. As a result, with encouragement and guidance, they very quickly begin to make their own Internet of Things devices, connecting and bringing their ideas to life.

Question: Tim Radford, former science editor of The Guardian once said that his only complaint about your writing was that there wasn’t enough of it. To this end, I think you’ve just finished writing a book, Wiring the IoT. Where can people find out more about your new book; and, lastly, what’s the best way to get a hold of you for workshops or questions?

Lucy Rogers: You already know I get excited when my ears are burning. Send me a tweet. I look forward to your questions. My twitter handle is: @DrLucyRogers . My Web site is http://www.lucyrogers.com.

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