Celebrating Everything Robotic

Remember how I told you that springtime always makes me think of robots? Apparently, I’m not the only one.

It’s National Robotics Week, and across the country, more than 225 events – competitions, expos, parties, workshops, classes and camps – will celebrate all things robotic. We’re doing our part here at UTARI, hosting a National Robotics Week Expo on Wednesday, April 9th from 10am-6pm. All of our robotics platforms, including PR2, Baxter, Kuka, DR20, and Parrot quadcopters, as well as our student robotics competition team vehicles, will be out and about throughout the UTARI facility doing demonstrations. And we’ll be joined by individuals and organizations from across the country – Lockheed Martin, Bell Helicopter, Innovative Conveyor Concepts, National Instruments, the Nolan Catholic School RoboVikes, OnPoynt Aerial Systems, Right Robotics, Vodik Labs, and Aldebaran Robotics, among others – to showcase the most innovative robotics technology. The resulting collection of demonstrations and systems will encompass everything from microrobots to Lockheed’s full-scale Squad Mission Support System (SMSS) – the largest unmanned vehicle ever deployed with U.S. ground forces. It’s UTARI’s version of a robotics “flea market,” with everyone showing off their wares from big to small, from costly to inexpensive, from corporation to Mom-and-Pop vendor.

National Robotics Week, organized by iRobot (creator of the Roomba) and industry partners across the country, highlights the role of the U.S. as a leader in robotics technology development, and seeks to inspire students of all ages to pursue careers in robotics and other Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) related fields. Naturally, you can see why we wanted to play a role in the celebration – those two goals are critical to UTARI’s everyday work and reflect the passion we have for technology development and education.

Not to mention that robots are just plain cool. The assistive technology work we do at UTARI is fascinating, functional, and honestly – incredibly fun. Take our work with Baxter. Baxter is a very functional robotic platform, used primarily for manufacturing and assembly applications. He’s also “affordable” in the world of robotics (running at about $25,000) and has a user-friendly programming interface. Our researchers are working with Baxter to extend his capabilities – looking at further manufacturing and assembly applications, as well as possible applications in the home and community. Our main Baxter researcher, Kris Doelling, has been utilizing source code from Rethink Robotics (Baxter’s creator) to test the platform’s capabilities within the UTARI labs – in this video, Baxter challenges Kris to a game of Connect Four.

While the demos of all things robotic commence at UTARI on April 9th, the University of Texas at Arlington will announce the launch of its Unmanned Vehicle Systems (UVS) Undergraduate Certificate Program. Offered by the College of Engineering, the interdisciplinary program will address ground-based, aerial, amphibious and marine systems. We’re looking forward to Associate Dean Pranesh Aswath’s formal announcement of the program at the Expo, and are excited to see the program begin in the Fall of 2014.

What robotic systems do you find most interesting? Have you worked with any particular robotic platforms that you believe are more relevant to future applications? In the near future, where do you think the most development will occur in the realm of robotics?

Look for more video clips to come featuring Baxter, PR2, and their robotic colleagues here at UTARI. And after the National Robotics Week Expo, we’re hoping that you’ll see a lot of demos that will make you as excited about robotics as we are every day.

Springtime and Robots

Spring and Robots

I’m sure the mention of Spring conjures up a lot of images for most folks – flowers, sunny days and such. It makes me think of robots. Of course, I think of robots quite a bit since I work with them every day here at UTARI, but this time of year is when the pace picks up. It’s when there’s a buzz around the Research Institute. It’s when students crowd into our building to prep for competition.

2013 SUAS team

UTARI is home to five student robotics competition teams: IGVC (Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition), SUAS (Student Unmanned Air Systems), RoboBoat, IEEE Microrobotics, and the NASA Rover Competition team. The ground, air and water competitions are hosted by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), which has a large outreach program at the K-12 and collegiate levels.

The requirements for all five competitions are impressive, requiring a combination of navigation, design, mobility and sensor capabilities that result in a robotics platform that can maneuver and conduct whatever tasks the competition requires. Our students work with UTARI researchers and affiliated faculty throughout the year to meet these requirements, and come May and June, they’re on the road to compete and test the design and functionality of their robotics. Industry partners, including QinetiQ North America, L3, Bell Helicopter and Lockheed Martin Missile and Fire Control, sponsored the teams in 2013, helping them prep for contests in Maryland, Michigan, Virginia, and Karlsruhe, Germany.

President Vistasp Karbhari

President Vistasp Karbhari addresses the Consortium.

Propelling Forward

Teams are gaining momentum, not only from the support of faculty, researchers and industry sponsors, but from taking advantage of the resources and facility space in UTARI’s Autonomous Systems Lab. At the beginning of 2014, the Autonomous Systems Lab began to take shape, culminating in the Unmanned Systems Consortium at the end of January. UTARI student robotics competition teams had a huge impact on the event – providing demonstrations and talking to attendees about their work. Team members represented themselves well, and the participants at the Consortium (and Dallas/Fort Worth media) took notice.

And the media is bound to take more notice in the coming month with National Robotics Week set for April 5-13th. For our part, UTARI will join the celebration by hosting a National Robotics Week Expo on Wednesday, April 9th, giving Dallas/Fort Worth businesses and organizations the opportunity to showcase their most impressive robotics. Think of a Robotics Flea Market – no vendor fees, no price for admission – just folks coming together to look at the latest technology. We hope you will be able to join us – it’s bound to be an exciting event. And who needs flowers for Spring when you can have robots?

The Way Ahead

What organizations do you think would be interested in demonstrating at the National Robotics Week Expo? What type of robotics technology would you like to see at the event? How do you think we can more actively engage students in robotics?

Taking Off, Part II

When I heard the wind howling at 5am last Monday, I knew that nothing was going to be flying outside UTARI that day. Those are the breaks. When you plan an Unmanned Systems Consortium that is bringing in more than a hundred of the nation’s leading industry and academic professionals in the field, and you’ve just received an FAA Certificate of Authorization to fly unmanned aircraft on your campus, it’s only natural that Texas weather would have other ideas. Namely, 30-mile-per-hour winds.

Local Media Showcases Unmanned Vehicles

IGVC team leader, Rommel Alonzo speaks with local media at the Unmanned Systems Consortium.

So when the Consortium attendees moved outside, our demonstrations focused primarily on Marauder, a product of our student robotics competition team for the Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition (IGVC). Marauder maneuvered around a marked course and got quite a bit of publicity from local and national media.

For those who were looking for a larger – much larger – unmanned ground vehicle, the folks at Lockheed Martin brought out an impressive piece of machinery: the Squad Mission Support System (SMSS). The largest unmanned ground vehicle ever deployed with U.S. ground forces, the SMSS was parked right in the middle of our Autonomous Systems Lab for the event. With the ability to provide a range of logistical and transportation support for our troops, the SMSS is an extraordinary vehicle. It’ll be interesting to see how Lockheed Martin furthers its capabilities in the future – with the advances in technology and the SMSS’s imposing size, the possibilities for improving warfighter conditions is exciting.

Lockheed Martin's SMSS and the Maurader in the Autonomous Systems Laboratory

And while we weren’t able to fly outside, Dr. Frank Lewis and his students in our Autonomous Systems Lab were able to showcase the abilities of the Parrot Quadrotor, a UAS weighing in at only five or six pounds. With the capacity to track images and a variety of motion control mechanisms, the Quadrotor has a range of surveillance and tracking uses. With facial recognition, the prospects of finding lost children or disoriented elderly patients with dementia could increase considerably. And because its recognition ability also includes symbols, even tracking cars on an Amber Alert could be in the not-too-distant future.

Cleared for Takeoff

COA area overlooking the lake.

To me, the biggest take-away from the Unmanned Systems Consortium is the open-ended possibilities these technologies offer to assist humans in dirty, dangerous, difficult and dull tasks. Investment in the research and development of unmanned systems provides a wealth of opportunities to increase the efficacy of industries from national security to agriculture. I’m looking forward to seeing how our new FAA Test Site designation, and our Certificate of Authorization to fly on the UTARI campus, will impact technological developments in UAS. Now that we’re “cleared for takeoff,” it will be exciting to see what innovations take flight.

The Way Ahead

What type of systems – ground, water, or air – do you find most interesting? What industries do you believe will further the expansion of unmanned systems most? What unmanned systems research and development areas are you most interested in exploring?

Taking Off

The folks here at UTARI hit the ground running in 2014. Just as the holidays were wrapping up, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that a Texas team – a team that includes UTA-affiliated faculty and researchers from UTARI – would be one of the nation’s six major FAA test sites for unmanned aircraft systems. The Lone Star UAS Center of Excellence and Innovation team, led by Texas A&M Corpus Christi, includes UTARI, Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station, the Camber Corporation, Southwest Research Institute, and other research institutions and private-sector companies. The designation is a huge deal in terms of research efforts, not to mention financial implications for the state.

Credit: Federal Aviation Administration

Lone Star State of Mind

It was an exhaustive 10-month process, with 25 proposals submitted from 24 states across the nation. Part of the appeal of Texas is the geographic and climactic diversity it brings to the test sites – anyone who has experienced Texas weather knows the type of diversity the FAA can expect. Considering that the focus of the congressional mandated test sites is to conduct research into ensuring the safety of UAS into the national airspace over the next few years, I can’t think of a better place than Texas to conduct testing. Extreme temperatures, unique terrain, broad wind speed variations, drought conditions – it’s all right here.

Research Takes Flight

Clockwise from top left: Dogan, Lewis, Subbarao, Huff

So you might be wondering, “How does this fit under the umbrella of ‘Assistive Technologies’?” Remember when we talked about UTARI’s definition of “assistive technology” earlier – as advanced, affordable technology to help humanity perform dirty, dull, dangerous, or difficult tasks in the home, workplace, or community? UTARI’s work as part of the FAA UAS test site encompasses all of those descriptors – dirty, dull, dangerous and difficult. UTA-affiliated faculty – Dr. Attila Dogan, Dr. Frank Lewis, Dr. Kamesh Subbarao, and Dr. Brian Huff – and UTARI researchers working on the project will focus on areas including collision avoidance and obstacle detection, modeling and simulation for operations and control, conflict prediction, avoidance and prevention, and autonomous guidance simulation in adverse environments. Many of our research areas deal with the everyday, nitty-gritty parts of making sure unmanned aerial systems run safely in our communities. And as we gain progressively more mature technology, we’re likely to see UAS utilized more frequently in tasks that are difficult, dirty or dangerous for humans – border surveillance, law enforcement, agricultural and forestry monitoring, and a wide scope of research efforts.

The Way Ahead

In what areas do you see UAS expanding in the future? What applications do you envision, and what technology would you like to see developed as part of our UAS efforts?

Smart Homes Getting Smarter

Smart Home TechnologyAt the beginning of December, while a monster of an ice storm had most of us in Dallas/Fort Worth trapped inside, a group of people gathered in San Antonio to talk about helping our wounded warriors. The meeting, held at the headquarters of grocery retailer H-E-B, was about a specific initiative: building state-of-the-art Smart Homes for our severely injured service members.

State of the Art Assistive Technologies

The initial phase of the project calls for two homes to be completed in 2014 – homes like no others in the world. Using current technologies (think robotic vacuums, automated temperature control) and newly-developed technologies (single-purpose robots to take out the trash, network-enabled appliances, etc.), the homes will be specifically designed to suit the needs of the individual soldier and family that live in them.

General Lynch addresses Smart Home collaborators.

The companies that attended the H-E-B meeting have a passion for helping the disabled, and were particularly interested in how they could be part of the effort to better the lives of our wounded warriors. The discussion focused on everything from addressing the medical needs of the homeowner, to ways in which to automate house work and handle specific space considerations. And the conversation extended to what technologies are anticipated down the road – what the group hoped for in terms of research and development of Smart Home components as the initiative progresses.

Quality of Life Research

There’s quite a bit of noteworthy work going on in this type of assistive technology, of course. Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh’s Quality of Life Technology Center drives some impressive research into increasing the independence of the disabled and elderly. And UTARI’s own Living Lab re-creates typical home living conditions to allow for realistic study of how products and processes will perform under everyday circumstances. Not surprisingly, using a real refrigerator when testing how a robot will open and remove items from a refrigerator, makes a world of difference.

PR2 Unloading Dryer

PR2 Robot unloading dryer in Living Laboratory

The coming months will be filled with a massive amount of research and development for the H-E-B Smart Homes project (not to mention good, old-fashioned brick-and-mortar work). The hope is that this initiative is simply the beginning of hundreds of Smart Homes across the country for our severely injured soldiers.

What do you think would be the most useful technology in a Smart Home? If it was your home, what features and technology would be on your “wish list”? What companies do you think would be interested in this initiative?

The Future of Printing

Growing up, I never thought of the possibility of three-dimensional printing. It’s a difficult concept to wrap your head around when you’re watching your teacher physically crank out mimeographed carbon copies.

As an adult, I’ve had the pleasure of watching the technology of 3D printing develop. There are the “wow”-worthy designs, of course. But what I find most fascinating are the 3D products that are integrated into other disciplines in a way that changes the playing field.

Assistive Innovations

The other day I ran across a list of winners for the 2013 James Dyson Award. Dyson, of bagless vacuum fame, presents awards each year for excellence in design engineering among university students. The international winner walks away with about $60,000 in prize money for designing something that “solves a problem.”

Titan Arm

Three members of the team (Liz Beattie, Nick McGill, and Nick Parrotta) pose with the Titan Arm.

This year’s winner, a group of students from the University of Pennsylvania, took home the Dyson Award for their work on the Titan Arm, an upper body exoskeleton that was originally developed to augment lifting ability for those whose job entails repetitive heavy lifting. The applications of the Titan Arm have extended to healthcare – to improve physical therapy, mobility, and perhaps prosthetics. And, notably, the Titan Arm was developed using quite a bit of 3D printing. According to Dyson, “Titan Arm is obviously an ingenious design, but the team’s use of modern, rapid – and relatively inexpensive – manufacturing techniques makes the project even more compelling.”

If you have a couple hundred thousands of dollars to blow, an exoskeleton might top your Christmas list this year, but for folks without the hefty bank account, it’s worth noting that the Titan Arm cost just $2,000 to make – in large part because of its reliance on 3D-printed parts.

Printing at UTARI

Clockwise from top left: Viper Si2 printer, Connex Objet 500 printer, and 3D printed surgical simulator.

Our work here at UTARI has relied frequently on the precision, capabilities and cost-efficiency of 3D printing. Our Knee Model Surgical Simulator – a low-cost arthroscopic surgical simulation model – was produced with the help of our Connex Objet 500 and Viper Si2 3D printers. The detail of the ligaments, bones, and menisci is incredible, making the simulated surgical experience particularly realistic – even to trained surgeons. And the cost break is indeed “compelling” – a few thousand dollars in comparison to virtual simulators that push a price tag sometimes up to $100,000.

The use of 3D printing for fabrication in medical and healthcare applications in-and-of itself isn’t groundbreaking, but the way in which people are beginning to test the boundaries of 3D printing capabilities certainly seems to be. The detail that is now available in the printing process lends itself to more and more complex applications, so the boundaries are likely to keep moving.

What do you think the next 3D printing “wow-worthy” breakthrough will be? In five or ten years, how do you think we’ll be using the technology?

Welcome

Writing a blog is a hit-or-miss proposition these days.  Some blogs have die-hard followers and thousands upon thousands of shares. Others? Well, you’ve never heard of them and likely never will.

I’m betting that this blog will be the former. Here’s why.

Assistive technology touches just about all aspects of life as we know it today. How many of us know someone who is elderly, or who has a disability? Or someone who has been hospitalized, has utilized products made by automated systems, has a prosthetic, uses products that are 3D printed, or has had surgery? Just about all of us have experience with one or more of those, and assistive technology impacts every single one of those experiences – and much, much more. More than you’ve probably ever thought possible.

At the University of Texas at Arlington Research Institute – or UTARI – we dedicate ourselves to the research and development of assistive technologies to help humanity. It’s a lofty goal, and one that we feel passionateabout. In particular, we work to provide affordable solutions to complex problems in the areas of Advanced Manufacturing, Biomedical Technologies and Robotics. Assistive technology is at the heart of each of those three divisions and is the driving force of the work we do at UTARI.

I suppose “Assistive Technology” can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. But here at UTARI, we’ve come to define it as advanced, affordable technology to help humanity perform dirty, dull, dangerous, or difficult tasks in the home, workplace, or community. Our assistive technology work encompasses everything from addressing manufacturing needs to helping the elderly and our wounded warriors live more independent lives.

In the coming weeks and months, this blog will look at some our work at UTARI and how it impacts and influences the larger scope of assistive technology. Among the topics we will discuss are:

  • 3D printing material and system development
  • Robotic skin technology
  • Real-time targeted wound healing
  • Automated assembly systems
  • Orthoscopic surgical simulators
  • Robotic partners to interface with children on the Autism Spectrum

Our researchers and staff at UTARI will be contributing blogs along the way and letting you know about the projects they’re working on and the assistive technology topics they find noteworthy.

Your thoughts and input will be the largest part of the blog, and I have a feeling that the discussion will be as dynamic and inventive as the topics we put forth.

I hope that you’ll join us for the discussion and discovery of the things assistive technology can and will do in the future.  – Rick

Lt. General Rick Lynch, U.S. Army (Ret.)

Executive Director

UTARI

Coming Soon!