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Out of this World

The Olin Robotics Lab has a distinctly otherworldly feel — but not because there are spirits floating about. Thanks to a grant from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, students in the lab are conducing research and doing project work on robots that might contribute to future interplanetary missions.

“Our theme right now is awesome robots in space,” says Dave Barrett, professor of mechanical engineering and director of the lab.

The JPL grant is funding the Robotic Systems class, enrolling about 20 students, who, along with other students working in the Robolab, are engaged in four “thrusts,” or project areas.

One team is working on a ground vehicle that could “terraform” the Martian landscape, building roads and preparing construction sites. One is creating underwater robots that could explore under planetary ice crusts. Another is developing large robotic arms that could work with humans to facilitate the building of structures. The fourth team is working on building an inflatable healthcare robot.

A visitor to the lab sees the ample evidence of work on the thrusts. In one corner, a model bulldozer is pushing around reddish sand similar to the Martian surface. On a nearby table, two large robotic arms are poised to pick up an array of blue blocks. Another table is the workspace for a team crafting “soft robots” that could be easily transported. All this in addition to other robotics projects, plus the 3D printers, computer-controlled motors and assorted other paraphernalia filling the room from floor to ceiling.

The tightly integrated nature of the thrusts presents another opportunity: to improve student’s research skills. Barrett is working with a group of faculty who want to make Olin students, known for their design chops, equally adept at experimental method: developing a hypothesis, collecting experimental data and then proving the thesis — along with publishing and presenting their findings at conferences to advance the state of knowledge.

“That’s an equally valid path for an engineer to follow, regardless of their discipline or concentration,” says Barrett, who has worked to transform the Robolab into an undergraduate research space over the last few semesters.

Sophomore Gretchen Rice is on the team working to create a “soft robot” modeled after Baymax, the humanoid robot in Disney’s Big Hero 6 movie who greeted people with the words “Hello, I am Baymax, your personal healthcare companion.”

The goal is to make a socially aware, nurturing robot made of squishy material that could fit into a small box for travel to a planet like Mars, and then be inflated upon arrival to look after astronauts’ health needs. One part of the team is working on making the robot, while others are working on the code that will determine how the robot reacts to humans.

Specifically, Rice and her teammates are working on creating algorithms to enable the robot to read facial emotions and determine from facial thermal scans whether a person is sick.

Rice notes this class has adopted a different approach from others she’s taken at Olin, in which she “dove right in” to projects.

“This class is structured a lot differently because we started off reading papers and doing research — which is really cool, to get into that research phase and saying ‘OK, what does research mean, how do we do this’ and then identifying some area that we’re interested in that hasn’t had a lot of work done in it so far.”

Heading into uncharted waters is a bit scary, she admits, but she feels it will ultimately be worthwhile. “It’s going to be really cool and really rewarding at the end when I’ve figured something out and taught myself something even if I haven’t completely answered my research questions,” says Rice.

Olin junior Isaac Vandor is heading up the underwater vehicle team. Its task is to create a robot that could dive down through a narrow hole in the thick ice on the surface of a planet or moon, and then explore autonomously below that, in the liquid layer.

Vandor’s team’s challenge is twofold: to create a robot that can navigate up, down and sideways, while detecting objects and mapping the environment. They will be using a novel navigation system called “structured light,” consisting of a camera and laser. Like many of the projects, this one could have earthly applications, for example, in helping with underwater construction projects like bridge building.


Vandor is very pleased to be doing such sophisticated research without waiting until he’s in graduate school.


“Nobody ever says we can’t do it, they just say ‘try it, document it and that’s science,’ and that’s an incredibly empowering thing,” says Vandor. “It feels like we can make a real impact even though we’re still undergraduates and it feels like we can work in the field from day one