Most students wouldn’t imagine spending the summer before college closed in a research lab, especially at their new college! Well, I flew 3000 miles across the country to beautiful Philadelphia where I spent my whole July in Levine 457 playing with “expensive flying toys”.
This summer, I performed research under the supervision of Professor Vijay Kumar, the Nemirovsky Family Dean of Penn Engineering, in his Multi-Robot Systems Lab (MRSL), which creates and designs autonomous aerial and ground robots, as well as algorithms for robot swarms and bio-inspired behaviors, as part of the renowned GRASP lab. With Ph.D. student Yash Mulgaonkar, I used an existing Matlab framework and redesigned it in C++ with ROS integration to autonomously control and fly a “pico-size” micro UAV quadcopter with a motion capture camera system called Vicon.
Let me walk you through how the whole system works. The robot is only about 20 grams, can travel about 6 m/s, and is small enough to fit in the palm of my hand! On the robot are several markers, which are tracked by the 20 cameras surrounding the room, which then feed the robot’s current position and orientation to a computer. The computer is running code that interprets the message and modifies it so that it can be sent to the robot through a wireless USB transmitter. The robot then sends back data, and this whole process is iterated over and over again. With this methodology, I can command the robot autonomously to take off, fly to a certain position, hover, and land with the Vicon system. The unique part about this project is the utilization of ROS (Robot Operating System), which is a graph-based ecosystem specifically designed for robotic control with toolboxes for message communication, control and planning, as well as visualization and mapping.
The takeaway from this summer’s work was how interdisciplinary robotics can be ranging from mechanical design to electrical systems to computer programming, and how Professor Kumar’s lab has such a variety of projects that can be applied to real-world issues. For example, there could be a whole “swarm” of the tiny flying robots that could be sent into a hostile environment to carry out a mission that humans can not perform. There are large robots that are flown over farms and forests to map the area and analyze data, which would take farmers forever by themselves. Due to the Japanese earthquake, the lab sent a flying robot through damaged buildings to map the area and assess the damage, which is much more efficient than ground robots or rescue workers. If you’ve seen the TED talk, the robots can also play the James Bond theme when you need a little entertainment!
My interest in robotics began when I was in elementary school building Lego robotics, and most recently when I worked on autonomous space robots at Stanford. Robotics and artificial intelligence are really the future of this world, from self-driving cars to robotic surgery to space taxis to humanoid robots that can play soccer, but as Elon Musk has said this could be our doom if not controlled properly. It’s wonderful to see so many large corporations investing in robotics, young students getting involved in robotics teams early on, and Penn having such high-class researchers in this ever-growing field. I hope to continue researching in GRASP, and maybe one day innovate the next big thing in robotics!