Robopop: Students invent ukulele-playing robot

At the moment, UkuRobot hides its gadgetry in rather unattractive wooden boxes. UkuRobot/YouTube

When sentient machines do finally take over the world and enslave humanity, at least the music at the party will be good.

Four Polish students from the AGH University of Science and Technology in Kraków have made sure of this by designing and building a robot that can play the ukulele.

So far, the little plucker can knock out tunes including the themes from The Godfather and Pirates of the Caribbean, which can be seen and heard on the project’s YouTube channel UkuRobot.

The four student boffins, Jakub, Adrian, Łukasz and Mateusz, came up with their idea for a term project as part of their mechatronics engineering course.

Jakub Grela told The First News: “We wanted our project to be original and interesting, so we came up with the idea of a robot playing an instrument.”

But why the Hawaiian-adapted Portuguese lute? “That's probably because it's a compact instrument with pleasant sound. And the only one available to us at the time.”

The inspiration for the non-humanoidal robot came from a special Lego kit that can play the guitar, but the young designers took the concept much further.

Other robots that play the guitar already exist but the inventors devised a way for their robot to not only strum all the strings at the sound hole and make cords on the fret board, they also invented a mechanism that plucks out individual strings at the same time.

This increases the range of pieces that the bot can play and makes the sound richer and polyphonic.

Like the result of a romantic weekend between Eric Clapton and R2D2, this Heath Robinson, Lego-based, music-playing automaton interprets music scores programmed into a specially designed PC app and sent by Bluetooth to tiny motors inside the robot’s wooden housing.

The effect kind of sounds like a robot playing the ukulele. However, the achievement is still impressive. It takes years to master an instrument but the undergraduate whizz kids needed only three months to create the fully-functional prototype.

A ukulele admittedly has fewer strings and frets than a standard classical guitar, but listening to a beginner after three months on either instrument would still require listeners to use earplugs. UkuRobot on the other hand eats up rhythmically complex compositions such as Requiem for a Dream like an old master.

At the moment, UkuRobot hides its gadgetry in rather unattractive wooden boxes. However, that is set to change. Grela explains: “We plan to give it a new, 3D-printed body, better motors and improved software. 

That's a lot of work, but seeing positive feedback in media and on our YouTube channel makes it worth it”. And ultimately? “A robot orchestra is a really neat vision!”