'Focused Research Team' launches interdisciplinary robotics initiative

Oct. 24, 2018

by Steven Schultz, Office of Engineering Communications

In an initiative to boost collaborations on subjects too new to fit into existing departments and centers, the School of Engineering and Applied Science has created a program to fund small, cross-disciplinary groups of researchers called Focused Research Teams.

The school has named three initial teams, two in emerging areas of biotechnology and one in robotics and “cyber-physical” systems. Each will receive $250,000 per year for three years, after which they will be evaluated to determine whether the initiative should continue, evolve into a larger effort or conclude.

“The pace of discovery and level of creativity among our faculty is astonishing,” said Emily Carter, dean of engineering. “And much of this work happens when people from different disciplines begin working together and inspiring each other. In our recent strategic planning process, we identified the need to incubate and accelerate the most exciting new areas so we can more quickly bring their benefits to society.

“I was very impressed with the quality of proposals we received and am thrilled to establish these first three teams,” said Carter, the Gerhard Andlinger Professor of Energy and the Environment.

Carter and Vice Dean Antoine Kahn selected the teams from among numerous submissions, following a peer review process.

Robotics and cyber-physical systems

Robotic systems have advanced dramatically in recent years, including the budding use of self-driving cars. However, large gaps remain in efforts to make widespread use of robots that work alongside humans or in distributed, interconnected groups. The team of four faculty members in three departments is seeking to fill those gaps by bringing an array of expertise to bear on a particular challenge: creating a collaborative team of robots that collect trash. The team said this task embodies many of the challenges faced by robotic systems today, including the need for each robot to sense, manipulate and navigate its environment, and for the group as a whole to coordinate and allocate its resources to achieve the task as efficiently as possible.

The principal investigators of the team are Thomas Funkhouser, the David M. Siegel ’83 Professor in Computer ScienceNaomi Leonard, the Edwin S. Wilsey Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering; Anirudha Majumdar, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering; and Naveen Verma, associate professor of electrical engineering.

By focusing on the trash collection project, the team expects to establish a hub for further research and collaboration. “These capabilities and associated challenges are very broadly relevant across robotics — and not tied to the specifics of the trash collection task,” said Majumdar. 

The work goes beyond conventional robotics to the emerging field of cyber-physical systems, which refers to distributed arrays of automated devices or systems, often connected or coordinated over a network, such as the internet.

“For example, teams of small mobile robots could provide critical support for search-and-rescue operations after an earthquake or flood; they could deliver critical medicines to people in remote or dangerous regions of the world; they could monitor changes to our environment by tracking plant and animal populations over time,” the researchers wrote.

In addition to technological advances, the team wants the effort to help address societal questions surrounding deployment of robots in social environments and their impacts within underserved communities.

“Overall, we feel that this project has the potential to have real impact on some of the grand challenges in robotics by bringing together a diverse range of expertise, initiating new collaborations across campus, strengthening existing ones, and engaging students and postdocs,” said Majumdar.

The work of this team will by supported by the Addy Fund.

The two other teams are:

precision antibiotics, led by A. James Link, professor of chemical and biological engineering; Mark Brynildsen, associate professor of chemical and biological engineering; and Mohamed Donia, assistant professor of molecular biology; and

engineering living organelles, led by José Avalos, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment; Clifford Brangwynne, associate professor of chemical and biological engineering; Mikko Haataja, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering; and Jared Toettcher, assistant professor of molecular biology.

The original version of this story appeared on the University homepage.