New To The Wood Shop? These Smart Power Tools Coach You Through It

Meet the Drill Sergeant, your new virtual shop teacher.

Thanks to the nation-wide death of shop class, an entire generation of kids is growing up without knowing the proper way to use a band saw (without someone standing behind it), or how to hold a power drill (not by the cord or the spinning bit).


That’s something Eldon Schoop, a PhD candidate in computer sciences at U.C. Berkeley, thinks will ultimately prove to be a disadvantage to millions of would-be makers when they want to evolve past 3D printers to create custom objects of increasing complexity. Back in the day, kids learned to use tools thanks to hands-on time with their seven-fingered shop teacher. How do you teach people those same lessons in the 21st century?

Along with his partner on the project, Michelle Nguyen, Schoop’s answer to this question is the Drill Sergeant, a robotic tutoring platform that augments a set of power tools to teach people how to use them safely . . . while also making them more fully functional. Their vision is to enable anyone to walk into this “smart workshop,” regardless of skill level, and walk out with a beautiful finished product–all without leaving any fingers behind.

That’s a tall order, admits Schoop. “Many skilled craftspeople start as apprentices, where they receive instruction, coaching, and feedback from a master,” he says. The Drill Sergeant system was borne out of a desire to emulate this hands-on tutelage, by embedding coaching functionality–the eponymous Drill Sergeant–into the tools themselves, creating a smart drill, miter saw, and CNC router.

The drill is an off-the-shelf model augmented by sensors that can detect its position, whether or not the chuck is spinning, and when a user’s finger is on the trigger. A pico projector projects instructions on how to properly bore a hole right onto the surface that is being drilled, while also giving continuous feedback on whether or not a user is drilling straight thanks to the included sensors. It’ll even warn you when you’ve reached the correct depth, and help you find the right-sized screw for the hole by projecting a perspective- and distance-corrected image underneath it. (“If you have a bucket of random screws in your garage like I do, I guarantee you’ll appreciate this last [feature],” says Schoop.)

Similar to the drill, the miter saw is augmented with sensors that detect its bevel angle, how fast a user is pulling it into the material, and the length of the piece being cut, while a connected tablet shows you step-by-step instructions. If you slip making a cut–say, making it slightly larger than intended–the saw will adjust measurements of other pieces being cut, so they assemble together correctly. Finally, there’s a smart CNC router with a camera in its bit and a small tablet on top displaying a perspective-corrected feed of the object you’re cutting. “You can use it to place the cutting path for your project right onto the workpiece, eliminating tons of setup time,” Schoop says.

Although none of these Drill Sergeant-enabled smart tools will make up for being a spatially challenged, butterfingered dummy like yours truly, Schoop says that the next-generation of makers need a toolbox that’s updated for the 21st century. “Over the next few years, I believe there is going to be a revolution in how we make things,” says Schoop. Although it’s a student project for now, Schoop and Nguyen say they’re working hard with unnamed partners to make the Drill Sergeant a retail product. “The future is very bright, and I’m excited to see how Drill Sergeant can play its part.”