Final preparations are underway for the debut performance of the Manchester Robot Orchestra later this week.
The Robot Orchestra, made up of 19 robotic musicians, will be taking to the stage for the first time at the EuroScience Open Forum this Sunday (24 July 2016).
Over 300 adults and children were involved in making the robot orchestra a reality, with the project coordinated by Professor Danielle George and her team at the University of Manchester.
The idea came about when Manchester became the first British city to be awarded the title of European City of Science. Danielle wanted to celebrate this with a project involving the whole city and thus this citizen engineering project was born.
“This seems to be the first of its kind,” enthuses Danielle. “It’s all about getting the citizens of Manchester together to be part of the research, part of the story. Effectively we’ve been trying to deliver an engineering project in way you’d never usually approach it, via crowd sourcing.”
The initiative’s goal was to create an environmentally friendly orchestra made out of robots playing instruments and recycled materials, with the people of Manchester asked to get involved by salvaging and donating materials, building robots, writing code or sharing their musical expertise.
Many Mancunians answered this call after seeing Danielle do a small talk on the project at the opening of the Manchester Science Festival in November 2015, but the initiative also caught the interest of many businesses and organisations, who donated funds and parts to support the orchestra’s creation.
Over recent months a series of open workshops have taken place where the public could come and work alongside engineering students and professionals to develop their musical machines. There are no specifications - imagination is the only limit - and the team has seen amazing ideas come from people aged from eight to 80.
“As long as they’re robust enough, all the robots have become part of the orchestra, whatever they sound like or whatever they play,” says Danielle. “We’ve just been building on the imagination and genius of the public, from five year olds at school to 75 year olds tinkering in their garage. Engineering and music have been brought together, it’s all about being creative!"
The Hallé orchestra, based in Manchester, has composed a piece of music for the robots to play, alongside independent local composers and bands. A group of engineering graduates at Siemens created the robotic conductor for the performance.
“They call it ‘Graphene’, because it’s a good conductor,” laughs Danielle.
“It’s really captured the imagination of lots of people. Manchester Transport got involved, saying it would like to donate old parts from the Metrolink tram system in Manchester, and even the National Trust, as Quarry Bank Mill has also donated parts. We’re literally going from the industrial revolution all the way through to graphene, which is telling the story of Manchester!”
As well as being in awe of the support the area has given the initiative, Danielle has been seriously impressed with the engineering ingenuity of the local community.
“The robots created have been much better than I would have ever imagined,” she enthuses. “We’ve got motor-controlled drums and shakers made from Pringles tubes, pencils, plastic tubs and dried beans, through to humanoid robots with electric brains created using Raspberry Pi’s, Arduino’s and Crumbles. There’s a drone that plays a Theremin and a hexapod that plays music using a dance mat. It’s been truly incredible!”
For the robots that can’t be controlled in real-time, the team have still found a way to include them in the performance, by sampling the sounds.
“There have been some amazing things done by children as young as five and we don’t want to miss these. Some aren’t as technically advanced as they need to be in order to be controlled by a central brain, but they’ll still be part of the orchestra as we’ve sampled the noise, the music they make,” explains Danielle.
The first performance by the Robot Orchestra takes play on 24 July, but this is only the beginning. There’s a real buzz about this unique musical creation, with more robots being designed and built over the summer. Danielle has also been asked by several organisations if her orchestra might go on tour.
“After we play at the opening of the EuroScience Open Forum we’ll be playing at the Manchester Science Festival, but some ‘interesting’ other places, too. We’ll be playing in the Piccadilly railway station [in Manchester] at the invitation of Metrolink. The company thinks it’ll be something quite fun for the commuters. Then from autumn we’ll be focusing on the whole legacy of the project and I think these robots are going to need passports!
“We’ve been asked if it can visit museums in the Netherlands and Siemens have asked if they can take it to Germany and showcase it to their counterparts there. Museums around the country would like to have it visit, too.
“It’s fantastic,” Danielle continues. “We want this project to have a legacy, not just the robots, but this idea that you can bring people together and that it’s good to tinker with things. It’s absolutely fine to fail along the way, to learn from those failures, to work together and enjoy the creativity.
"My personal quest has been to get people to understand that engineers are creative and that more people should get involved in the industry.”