Growing up in the Danish countryside, in the wild west of Jutland, I had no idea that I’d end up pursuing a calling in robotics engineering and development at Lego. I currently work with Lego Mindstorms, a programmable robotics construction kit that enables kids of all ages to make their own robots out of Lego.
I really love my job, so I wish that I could tell you all about it. However, working in the domain of highly classified development hinders me from doing so. One thing I can tell you is about my journey up to this point, my maker story, which happens to involve quite a bit of Lego building.
Since as far back as I can remember, I’ve always been addicted to creating stuff. My father was a mechanic and my mother a florist, so I grew up with a large amount of creativity and craftsmanship. During most of my childhood we were renovating our house, and I was always there to give a helping hand, which is probably where I got my passion for building. I was introduced to Lego Duplo at an early age and quickly started creating high towers and houses.
I moved on to the Lego City sets, where you could make much more detailed models. I would follow the instructions for a model once just after I got them, but they would quickly be destroyed and turned into something else in combination with my other Lego toys. Even though I really enjoyed my Lego City sets, there was a need for something more, and that need was satisfied with the Lego Technic sets — the axles, the gears, the pneumatics, and last but not least, the motors. I was now able to make my Lego creations move, which opened a whole new world to me. With these sets I was able to replicate many of the farming machines that I was surrounded with.
Now, my childhood wasn’t all about Lego, growing up, I also enjoyed spending time outside. You could say that Lego was my evening and rainy day activity, so thank God Denmark is a very rainy country. But when I was outside, I was playing in the woods and fields that surrounded our house. I enjoyed building cabins in the treetops with Tarzan tracks between them. My mom has this story she likes to tell people, which describes me pretty well. I once came running into the kitchen and asked her how far up in the trees I was allowed to climb. She gave me a response that the has regretted so many times, she told me that I was allowed to climb upwards as long as I was sure that I could climb back down. The next thing she saw was me hanging on to the very thin branches at the top of a tree where normally only birds would be found.
I Discover Lego Technic
In 1997 something very special happened with Lego that blew my mind: they launched one of their first programmable Lego Technic sets. Most of you might think that I’m talking about the Mindstorms series, but no. I’m talking about a set called the Code-Pilot. This set contained a programmable brick that could be programmed using an integrated barcode scanner. Along with the set came a big cardboard card with the barcodes that represented instructions that would be executed in the order they where scanned. This was truly amazing to me; I was now able to combine my Lego Technic bricks and motors with a programmable brick and sensors to make my Lego creations come to LIFE!
This set introduced a new concept to me, something called programming. All the play that I had with this set is really what shaped my passion for automation and robots. It created a hunger in me for technology, that just grew bigger and bigger. For some reason, I didn’t discover the Mindstorms series at that point, so instead I moved into the computers and left Lego behind.
Welding, Coding, and Mindstorms
I started welding and went crazy in our garage. I created stuff like horse wagons, trebuchets, and go-carts. I had also spent some of the rainy Denmark days teaching myself how to program websites with HTML, PHP, and MySQL. Back then websites were one of the easiest ways for people to learn about programming by themselves. Although I was able to weld, do electric circuits, and program websites, there was still something missing. In my eyes I had been creating cooler stuff with my Lego set in the garage.
There was more I needed to learn, so I signed up for a technical high school in Denmark. During that first year I was introduced to the Mindstorms RCX for the first time. This incredible toy brought back my love for Lego. I found a friend at the school that had the same passion for programmable Lego, and together we spent some of our weekends creating Lego robots and machines. With the RCX I was introduced to embedded programming using the C language, and I moved on to programming microcontrollers and creating my own PCBs during my studies.
I Study Industrial Automation and Computer Engineering
After high school I was sure that I wanted some work experience before I started studying engineering, so I enrolled in a four year Automation Technician program, working in industrial automation with machines and robots. The program gave me a lot of experience of designing control systems for industrial machines and robots. I traveled Europe setting up and configuring production lines, and I received two awards for my efforts during this study. This was very exciting, but I always felt that I was lacking the full understanding of what exactly was going on through the whole system.
Therefore I started studying Computer Engineering at the University of Aalborg in northern Denmark. This gave me deeper insights into computer systems, and I now had knowledge in all layers of automated systems. I’ve always found the best way for me to understand the theories and methods is to play with them and experiment, as I’ve never been good at reading thick theory books. Using Lego Mindstorms, that was exactly what I did. It helped me to play with a lot of the theories that I was being taught at the university.
Lego Notices Us
I was lucky enough that my Lego friend from back in high school also studied at Aalborg university, so we reunited and started creating amazing stuff with the Lego Mindstorms. We kept making robots and machines with Lego, and our creations started to catch the attention of some Lego employees.
In 2010, Lego reached out to us and asked if we wanted to create a model that we could show for Lego World in Copenhagen. We created a booth that included 8 Mindstorms robots out of our own Lego collection, and went without knowing what we had signed up for. Our booth was a model of a cargo terminal, where we had an automated conveyor belt and two autonomous cargo trucks. The booth also contained two Mindstorms forklifts, each of which was controllable by a joystick made out of Lego Mindstorms. This was a huge success at Lego world, and Lego quickly asked us for a list of parts we would need to make a copy of it.
Then they invited us to show off the cargo terminal at the Lego World event in Holland. This event opened our eyes to a whole new world, a world with others like ourselves, who had a passion for robotics and used Lego to bring their ideas to life. We both got included in a group called MCP (Mindstorms Community Partner), which is a group of selected adult Mindstorms users that discuss the product and its future with developers at Lego. Through this program, we also got the chance to be supported by Lego on our projects, so if we had a good idea, we could ask Lego for the pieces we needed and they would then send us everything, if they found the idea interesting. We felt like Charlie at the chocolate factory, as we now had a chance to realize some of the projects that we had always wanted to do. We also got informed about Lego’s plans to launch the third generation, now known as the EV3. In the closed forum we got access to pictures and videos of early prototypes and we were discussing different aspects of the product during the development. This was very exciting time for me, it made me feel very special to be a part of a select few that knew about the project.
Dynaway Asks for Our Help
But Lego wasn’t the only one who had noticed what my friend and I were doing with our spare time. We were approached by a company called Dynaway, that makes specialized software to help control large manufacturing facilities. They had a hard time demoing their software at exhibitions, because it needed to integrate to a factory to show its full potential. This became a part-time job for my friend and I while we were studying at the university. We created Lego models of two different production plants, each one by one meter with four and eight Mindstorms NXT bricks. We created a server that helped Dynaway’s software talk to the Lego factories as if they were real factories. This is still to date the biggest Lego project I’ve ever taken part in, and also the most complex. This required a lot of design, both physical and digital, and we would not be traveling with it when it was to be shown to the public. Therefore we needed to make sure that both the models and the software were very stable and easy to restart. Here my experience in industrial automation really paid off.
Traveling the World with Lego
In this period of my life, the Lego sponsorship took my friend and me around the world with other enthusiasts to showcase our creations and inspire others. Among our destinations were the World Robotic Olympiad in Abu Dhabi (2011), Kuala Lumpur (2012) and Jakarta (2013); and the yearly FIRST championships in St. Louis, Mo. At these events we would mostly bring some of our bigger creation like the Lego Mindstorms Blimps. Those are flying Lego models that use helium balloons as the main source of lift and have propellers that enable control of lift, propulsion, and steering.
My Lego Internship
When we were at the event in Abu Dhabi, Lego called us in for a meeting with all the Mindstorms enthusiasts that they had sponsored to go there, and announced that they were looking for 12 people that would become the Lego Mindstorms Expert Panel. This would be a group that worked closely with Lego on the development of Mindstorms EV3 product. I got included in this select group, and started collaborating with Lego on the future generation of Mindstorms. Through this close collaboration with Lego, I was also able to get a Lego internship.
I had my first day in at the Lego headquarters in Billund on the 11th of April 2012, where my task was to investigate how to integrate the new Mindstorms product with smartphones. I really can’t describe the feeling I had that day when I sat down at my own desk inside Lego headquarters, knowing that I was going to be a big part of the team that created a new version of the product that had helped me throughout my whole life up to this point. Even better, it turned out that my manager was one of the creators of the Lego set that kickstarted my interest in robots, the 8479 that I mentioned earlier. During my internship, I created a lot of different prototype apps, two of which are what came to be the official Lego Mindstorms Robot Commander app.
Designing the DINOR3X
Even though I was working full time at Lego during my internship, I was still a part of the expert panel of fans that also got different tasks. One of the big tasks that we were asked to work on was to create bonus models. This would be models created by fans but posted on the official Lego website and promoted by Lego as extra models that could be built with the new Mindstorms EV3 set. I had, as I bet most who have played with Lego, always dreamt of being a Lego designer, so being asked to do a model for Lego was like a dream come true. When I had to decide what the model should be, I was very determined to create a walking four-legged robot. And I even had a specific walking mechanism that I really wanted to implement using Lego: Theo Jansen’s “Strandbeest.” This mechanism has always fascinated me, as it has such a lifelike movement to it. The biggest challenge was to build this mechanism using the limited parts that came with the set, but after a lot of trial and error, I managed to make it work. With this mechanism I created the DINOR3X bonus model.
My internship eventually ended and I had to go back to the university for my final exams, but I got a part time job at Lego so that I could continue the work I had started there during my internship.
When I got my degree, I was hired as a full-time employee. My work in computer engineering on Lego Mindstorms involves working with our existing product, the Mindstorms EV3, but also peeking into the crystal ball, thinking about creating the toys and tools, that will inspire the innovators of tomorrow. Still very much feeling like a kid myself, I wish I could tell you more about that last bit, but as I said … I’d lose my job if I did that. And that is something I really don’t want to! See, getting to play with Lego and robots at work feels pretty goddam cool…