C2I 2023 Young Innovator Winner: AutoMate

Developed by school students Joseph Birch and Finley Stirk, the AutoMate mechatronic chess board allows users with physical disabilities to play chess without touching the pieces.

AutoMate board CAD design
AutoMate board CAD design - Joseph Birch and Finley Stirk

Category: Young Innovator
Headline Sponsor: Hays
Project: AutoMate
Partners: Joseph Birch and Finley Stirk

This year’s young innovators - sixth form students Joseph Birch and Finley Stirk - aimed to ensure that the competition of chess is available to all though their AutoMate chess board invention.

AutoMate is a chess board with integrated mechatronic systems which allows users to play chess without touching the pieces, instead inputting moves through inclusive technologies such as eye-gaze tracking and voice commands.

“This project was inspired by a family member who works as speech and language therapist at a special educational needs (SEN) school. They often play games with their students, some of which need eye-gaze trackers to play, making play between those with and without motor disabilities difficult,” said co-inventor Joseph Birch, an A-Level student at Trinity School of John Whitgift, an independent boys school in Croydon, Surrey.

“Being avid chess players with a passion for engineering, we decided to create this project to bridge the gap, allowing those with motor impairment to play any opponent.”

The young innovators believe their invention will open the door for people with motor disabilities and impairments, such as arthritis, cerebral palsy and paralysis, to have the opportunity to play chess against any other opponent.

The board could also be used to train both amateur and advanced level players as an always-available practice tool, to develop their play and skills only obtainable through over-the-board-play, such as board visualisation.

“Whether it's for training, inclusivity or simply entertainment, automate will revolutionise acc-chess-ibility,” said its inventors.

Over the past year, Birch and Stirk have developed a fully-functional prototype, with eye-gaze tracking piece movement and accurate piece detection.

The eye-gaze tracking software detects which piece the player intends to move, and where to on the board, which is then communicated to the CoreXY cartesian motion system that is built into the board, a unique motor movement where the X or Y motor move together or opposite of each other to move the carriage from left to right or towards or away, which smoothly updates the physical game set-up in front of the user.

The CoreXY motion system moves around an end effector containing a servo motor with a magnet attached, to move the 3D printed pieces, with a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) reader which detects the pieces.

When researching existing robotic chess boards, Birch and Stirk found many used binary sensors underneath each square of the board as a means of piece detection, which could simply detect whether the square was occupied or not.

“One major issue with this system is the fact it is essentially ‘blind’ to which piece is which, making it impossible to handle things such as piece promotion and error correction,” said Birch.

“To solve this, our pieces contain a small RFID tag in their bases which can be read by a sensor moving underneath the board. Aswell as allowing for promotion, it allows the board to correct user’s mistakes and autonomously set up the pieces ready to play a game.”

The young innovators wanted to make playing with the AutoMate chess board as natural as possible, and so they put a great deal of emphasis on the speed the robot was able to move the pieces.

As such, the CoreXY systems sits underneath the board to move around the end effector, which leaves the motors stationary to make the system lighter and faster, as well as protecting the mechanisms.

Having an interest and prior experiences in robotics, Birch was the brains behind the design and manufacturing of AutoMate’s hardware, including the electronics, mechanics and aesthetic.

“Working on the design and manufacturing of the hardware systems, I’ve vastly improved my skills using CAD and learnt how to operate MSLA 3D printers, milling machines and lathes,” he said. “Electronics is an area I had very minimal prior experience in, and it has been extremely valuable to learn about it through designing the mechatronics for this project.”

AutoMate fully-developed prototype - Joseph Birch

Stirk, on the other hand, developed all of the project’s software, creating the logical systems needed to control the mechatronics and the robot’s decision making.

AutoMate’s custom software and user interface allows for the easy control of the eye-gaze tracking feature, which forms the crux of the board’s inclusivity: the fact users can play out a full game of chess without needing to manually interact with anything.

The software allows users to play against a computer of any level at any time, from range of opponent difficulties, and is also connected to a database of thousands of professional games, which the innovators said allows players learning chess to watch professional players in a more interactive style to then improve upon their own skills.

Stirk said he implemented an A* computer algorithm, widely used in pathfinding and graph traversal, so that the AutoMate robot can calculate the shortest distance a piece can be moved around the board without colliding with any other pieces.

“Being a part of this project has given me skills which will help me in my desired career as a software engineer,” said Stirk. “Overcoming challenges like memory management and optimisation have also helped prepare me for my degree in Computer Science.

“Despite having distinct roles, the multidisciplinary nature of our project meant decisions made by hardware invariably affected the software and vice versa. The whole process of working together with an aspiring engineer has given me invaluable robotics and collaboration skills for my future career.”

The invention is set to be both inclusive and affordable, as the initial advanced protype has cost just £250 to make, most of which was spent on researching and testing various components and materials rather than the actual build.

“We believe that we could manufacture our product at a fraction of the cost of current solutions and achieve our goal of making chess accessible to everyone,” said Birch.

“Further, we have been conscious to keep as many parts as possible to be manufactured using just a 3D printer, simple tools, and standard components, as we plan to make this project open source in the future to allow people to have access to it and learn about the design and engineering work behind it in a more practical, enjoyable way.”

Looking ahead, the award winners hope to develop their protype design into a final product and even adapt the design for different inclusive board games.

“The most rewarding part of this project has been sharing it at our school’s chess and Young Engineers clubs. Seeing other students playing chess against it and teaching them about the mechanisms and engineering has been really enjoyable and it has proven our collaborative effort has paid off,” said Stirk. “We can’t wait to bring the final product to Marjorie McClure school and get their feedback.”

“We feel our project is a great example of the amazing things multidisciplinary teams of engineers can create and the impact engineering has in creating a more accessible future, hopefully inspiring others to do so too.”