Frank’s aim is to create a “Genuine Learning and Training Experience” for engineering students so they develop the basic skills for becoming technopreneurial wealth creators in start-up industries. This noble aim can only work if you choose students who possess an intuitive ‘nouse’ (instinct) for engineering and you don’t know this ability until it is assessed by getting students involved with building robots and machines. Primarily, this experience centres on a ‘researching-designing-making-programming-testing-of-real-working-robots-and-machines’ experience and you can see students doing this in the clips below. Some educators call it the CDIO experience, i.e.’Conceive-Design-Implement-Operate.’
Frank starts by teaching students how to make robots and smart products/machines from cut and glued cardboard and you can see this innovative teaching style in his new co-authored book on project-based learning entitled, ‘Creating Precision Robots’ now available on Amazon….

LATEST CATAPULT ROBOT (I’m having problem getting this clip to play. Please be patient for a bit longer while I fix it).

Oh and another thing, when students build these robots, some of them become pretty hot-shot model-makers

There’s another newly published book just available by Frank and co-author Y.J.Lin. The book is concerned with teaching students to programme locomotion patterns for driver-less autonomous electric wheeled, legged and hybrid vehicles such as an omnidirectional hexapod (six-legged) robot that includes programming its ‘central pattern generator’. The book is called ‘Precision Programming of Roving Robots’ and is now available on Amazon, just click on link below…


Frank’s jumping leg using a force impulse mechanism that he designed and made; see video clip below. Yes it’s noisy but it’s a prototype and the new design will be 100 times quieter. There is NO stored energy in the system such as springs; it is a near-pure force-producing device with thus near-zero output impedance, the first of its kind. You can programme a force-time signature thus controlling the force impulse, I(N-s)…………continued explanation after the video clip…

…..Currently, maximum force is 1200N and minimum time of impulse is 0.05sec. Muscle actuator weighs 2.9kg-f. Moving system weighs 7.5kg-f. Yes that’s heavy but mass will be reduced 3 times and power will be increased 3 times for the new design coming soon.

Rickshaw chariot robot
See clip below of Bruce and Danny demonstrating their interesting way of negotiating a figure-of-eight path for their undergraduate Robotics Dynamics and Control engineering project

Latest student project to teach inverse kinematics and robots
Felix and Leo showing their final year capstone project which is a catapult robot that is mobile, radio controlled and shoots ping pong balls into a basket at 2 metres and 4 metres range

The clip below gives you an idea of Frank’s style of teaching.

Student paddle craft competition below at the University of Brunei Darussalam. Go to 4min 30sec for the competition. Boats made from cardboard and waterproofed with paint. Students programmed their boats to carry cargo from Brunei harbour to Malaysia Port Dickson harbour to Hong Kong harbour to Singapore harbour back to Brunei harbour in the shortest possible time. The MORE cargo weight you transport on your boat the MORE marks you get but the MORE time you take the LESS marks you get. Your total marks are equal to weight divided by time. This is an engineering project with a business twist because it’s about transporting cargo commercially. See the whole clip to see how fun-loving, innovative and creative these students are. Remember go to 4min 30sec for the competition

Engineering undergraduate students experimenting with paddle boat robots made from cardboard
Experimental skinny legged in-line leg hexapod with small servos
Frank designs robots then designs courses to teach students how to design robots. Here is Frank and his students assembling aluminium parts of a 3-wheeled tricycle robot. He personally taught the students how to make these parts in the manufacturing studio on manual lathe and manual milling machine one week before
…and here is the tricycle, an autonomous, driverless, mobile electric vehicle programmed to pass its rear wheel through 8 target bulls eyes in a figure of eight pattern
Hexapod programmed to do outside epicyclic gear action. Imagine running a penny on the outside of your thumb and forefinger whose tips are touching forming a circle The penny is the robot
Frank’s Innovation and Design class 2007-8 project for 1st year University of Brunei Darussalam students in the engineering dept. This is Irnnie, Leong and Auzi having fun following the building of their Chateau Pomme de Terre potato shaping machine
Compact hexapod with batteries inside the tubular body and range finder infra red whisker sensors
Student project, Boby, Arland and Frank designed a prototype augmented reality hexapod robot gladiator sparring scenario. A bad guy robot comes to town saying he has waited long enough and takes a potshot at the central business district building which you can see falling down in the background. The good robot on the right tries to take out the bad guy with potshots at the bad guy robot with recoil, lights and sound. Eventually the bad guy robot receives 7 potshots and demises painfully then the good guy does a victory lap saying, “De.th has many doors…etc. Boby and Arland choreographed the scenario including lights and sound including a load of other things
Hexapod programmed to do inside epicyclic gear action. Imagine running a penny on the inside of your thumb and forefinger whose tips are touching forming a circle The penny is the robot
Jumbo sized kinda Rubik Cube, but not really, fun project to use computer vision to place a coloured cube into place with all sides of Jumbo cube to have same colour. Each cube has a different colour on each of its six sides. The fork lift truck robot was a whole lot of fun building too
Ping pong ball hitter with 10-ball magazine. Two out-of-phase driven servos are used to serve the ball into the tee. Only 6 balls basketed out of 10. Students have to figure out reasons for repeatability errors
An experiment with a straight line pull back mechanism for a ping pong ball catapult robot…too complicated so abandoned in favour of simplified mechanism¬†


Some Featured Projects

UNNC Mars Rover Project; an omni-directional wheeled robot
Basic Ping Pong Ball Catapult Robot
Precision Ping Pong ball Hitter Robot viewed from the top of its 10-ball magazine autoloader
Ping Pong Ball Hitter
Design model of Eagle Bird Robot main wing
Ping pong ball Thrower Robot. Rotating arm holding ball in a gripper that lets go at the precise angle to put the ball in the basket



Latest Hexapod

Great care has been taken with this latest design. For example, (i) 60 ball bearing races are used for the leg and tendon joints to give low friction, long life, extremely low maintenance and high repeatability, (ii) legs have low weight, high stiffness and low polar moment of inertia brought about by careful design, CNC precision machining, and use of aluminium alloy, Delrin plastic and carbon fibre materials.

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Featured Research Project Artificial muscle

Artificial muscle prototype. This version has been superseded by much higher performance version that has a pulling force of 1000 Newtons. This version shows the principle which is the subject of an awarded USA patent May 2017
Artificial muscle oscillating at 1.5Hz Latest version oscillates at 10Hz



3dof leg in realtime demonstration. Note that this video is not speeded up. The computation update rate is 50 times per second, that’s an update period of 20msecs and many complex inverse kinematics equations are done inside that 20msecs. All computation is done with integer-only maths…integer maths is yummy lovely bubbly stuff
Robot Eagle Bird Tail demonstrating flight control motions. Oh yes, this has the potential to be a great student project, to build a biomimicking eagle bird flying robot. By biomimicking we mean feather-accurate and skeletal-accurate construction. It is a ‘Dynamic Agile Animal Robot’ project



About Frank

This is Frank programming a CNC milling machine
A CNC (Computer Numerically Controlled) machine, is a high precision machine that you program to cut material, e.g. plastic, aluminium, into almost any shape you can imagine. The machine is a “subtractive” machine, i.e. it removes unwanted material from a block, as compared to an “additive machine”, e.g. a 3-d printer, that starts by building up a shape from nothing by adding tiny amounts of material to itself like bees when they build their hive. Both machines have their own advantages and disadvantages.
Current position: After 25 years in academia in Hong Kong, Singapore, Brunei and China Frank has relocated to Bristol to be part of the Bristol Engineering and Robotics Community as an R&D Engineer/Educator. He has U.K. industrial R&D product design experience with Danfoss electromagnetic flowmeters, Renishaw Research and Transducers, AMF (American Machine and Foundry), Lucas Microelectronic Automotive Control Systems (Lucas MICOS), and Ford Motor Co. Francis Frank Nickols previously was an Associate Professor of Mechatronics and Control Engineering at University of Nottingham Ningbo China, UNNC. This is a British University in China, Zhejiang Province, city of Ningbo which is south of Shanghai on the eastern seaboard of China. He was educated at Christ’s College, Cambridge University U.K. where he received a Bachelor degree in Engineering Science in 1978. Later he received a Masters degree in Electronic Systems Design from Cranfield University, U.K. and a Ph.D. degree in Mechatronics from University of Wales, College of Cardiff, U.K.

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