In honor of Israel’s Independence Day, researchers at the Technion have built the world’s first Zionist robot – actually, a robotic xylophone with autonomous arms that plays Hatikva, Israel’s national anthem.
“Based on an idea presented to us at the Faculty’s Control Robotics & Machine Learning Lab, we built a system of robotic arms that can play the xylophone independently,” said Eli Zalianski, who built the system with fellow Technion student Igor Kantor. “In honor of Israel’s 68th Independence Day, we decided to teach the robot the national anthem, and we have no doubt that it’s the first robot that has ever played Hatikva.”
It’s part of what has become a Technion tradition of celebrating Israeli and Jewish holidays using robots or other high-tech contraptions. On Passover, the Technion held its annual Rube Goldberg Passover machine contest, in which Jewish day schools from around the world submitted projects illustrating holiday concepts based on the “Rube Goldberg method” of coming up with the most complicated and convoluted engineering solution to solve a simple problem.
On Hanukkah, Technion students built robots that lit a menorah and served donuts to guests at a holiday party. Before Rosh Hashanah, Technion-built robots go out to the field and pick apples for use at the traditional holiday meals. Students even managed to put a Hanukkah menorah “on the moon” using laser technology.
For Independence Day, the students assembled eight timed motors that play a selection of songs using MIDI files that contain the notes. The system has “eight servo motors drive the four mallets – two motors for each mallet. Each mallet can move to the left and right and then strike the xylophone. I have a background in music that helped me understand how to work with notes and sound,” said Zalinski.
“We spent six months working on building, wiring and programming,” said Kantor. “We used existing motors and bases and built the whole thing around them. The greatest effort was to build the system itself – a construction that would last and not fall apart. We had to take the music file and translate it into the robot’s movements. MATLAB software converts the file and uses the Arduino controller to send the motors instructions for moving the arms. The user selects a song to play and the software will convert the selected MIDI file into a sequence of timed notes and begin playing the desired song.”
The xylophone is limited to 25 tones and three octaves, criteria which Hatikvah fits. And although to the naked eye, the system doesn’t look particularly sophisticated, there’s a lot of technology behind those notes, said Kantor. “We didn’t think it would take such a long time to work on the system and build the robot.”
Koby Kohai, head of the Control Robotics & Machine Learning Lab at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, advised the students on the project. “For us at the faculty, the process that the students go through in order to establish themselves professionally is the significant part, rather than the final product,” said Kohai. “During the course, students must investigate new technologies, and they acquire hands-on experience with entrepreneurship and product development.”