Northeastern University shows ‘experiential robotics’ in new EXP space

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Interdisciplinary robotics research at Northeastern University.

COBRA is among the Institute for Experiential Robotics. Credit: Matthew Modoono, Northeastern University

BOSTON — Robots in Northeastern University’s new EXP building wield chopsticks, rotate platforms and look like snakes. Roboticists at the Institute for Experiential Robotics’ lab said they are conducting transformative research.

The robots are handling chopsticks for precise manipulation. Research continues with a snake-like robot created for NASA’s BIG Idea Challenge that can navigate in sandy environments like the moon. And the lab has fabrication rooms for electronics, 3D printing, and laser cutting.

The new space takes up the majority of the first level of the eight-story science and engineering complex on the university‘s Boston campus. Its high bay area is about the size of a basketball court. It is decked out with robotics systems spanning the technological gamut, including collaborative robots, industrial robot arms, mobile robots, drones, virtual reality systems, and much more.

The institute also has space on the seventh floor of EXP that includes more robots, as well as desk and laboratory space for researchers to conduct their work.

Northeastern lab focuses on human-robot interaction

“Our mission is straightforward in my mind — enrich human experiences through meaningful development and deployment of robotics technology,” said Taskin Padir, a Northeastern robotics professor and the director of the institute. 

“We’ve been working with the design team for the past six years even before the groundbreaking of the building,” he said. “We had a vision for the space where we can demonstrate what we mean by ‘experiential robotics.’”

Several Northeastern students and faculty members in the lab are working on projects being led by Padir.

VERA could change how workcells look

As part of a National Science Foundation grant, Northeastern developed a series of robotics applications designed to help workers in the seafood packaging industry use robots to move and pack products.

One of those systems involved creating a workstation that features an assistive robotic table. The name of the robotic system is VERA, which stands for “voxel-enabled robotic assistant.”

Embedded in the table is a series of robotic cube-like devices called voxels. The voxels are able to spin to move of an object, such as plastic packaging. The workcell also features a mounted camera to track the movement of an object.

“The idea here was motivated by us having gone to seafood manufacturing sites and seeing people cut up really large fish like tuna and noticing that they had a lot of trouble moving around certain parts,” explained Mark Zolotas, a research scientist at Northeastern. “So that motivated us to design a robot that wouldn’t interfere with your workspace.”

It’s a little different than what one would expect a typical automated workcell to look, since there are no robotic arms involved, he noted. 

“We sort of see it as being a general way of rethinking about the way we view robots in general,” said Zolotas.

VERA at Northeastern University

VERA uses voxels to move objects. Credit: Matthew Modoono, Northeastern University

Institute for Experiential Robotics conducts interdisciplinary research

As of now, 20 faculty members working in a number of disciplines including robotics, artificial intelligence, computer science, physical therapy and entrepreneurship have a presence in the new space, Padir said.

“It’s not the space or equipment that creates knowledge or pushes the boundaries of research,” he added. “It’s the people. Without researchers, we cannot do anything. It works in a hierarchical way — we have faculty who set the vision for projects then we have full-time postdoctoral researchers who help guide the Ph.D. students. We also have a very large cohort of master’s students in robotics. I envision they will get involved.”

“The institute also always provides experiential learning opportunities for our undergraduates. We have a track record of recruiting qualified students in our institute, so they will get involved in our research,” Padir said.  

Hanumant Singh, a professor of robotics at Northeastern, has a number of robots housed in the lab, including robots designed for underwater use. He says one of the key innovations of the lab is that it lets robotics researchers work together in a shared space. 

“The biggest and the most important part of this is that we are working as a collaborative,” said Singh, who notes the lab’s large open space allows for modularity and allows researchers to use it any way they see fit. “It’s an open space that does not belong to anybody that’s reconfigurable based on the project and the people that are working on stuff.” 

Julie Marble, executive director of the institute, echoed Singh’s sentiment.  

“One of the main goals for the Institute for Experiential Robotics is to become the flagship for robotics at Northeastern,” she said. “If you want to have robotics at that level, you need to be not only interdisciplinary but you also need to have a lot of collaboration. One of the goals of this space is to create a space where all of our faculty and their grad students can work together collaboratively.”

COBRA copies biology to roll onward

Doctoral students Adarsh Salagame and Kruthika Gangaraju are certainly taking advantage of the space. They were part of the team behind the COBRA system, or the Crater Observing Bio-inspired Rolling Articulator.

Northeastern snake-like robot was created for NASA’s BIG Idea Challenge, which called on teams of students to develop a robotic system designed to navigate difficult terrain. Alierez Ramezani, a Northeastern assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, led the team that developed the project.

The researchers’ goal was to develop a robot that could operate on the lunar south pole. They turned to nature to find a solution, said Salagame during a demonstration. 

“Snakes are well-documented to be able to operate in these sandy environments,” he said. “Other typical robots don’t operate in these kinds of environments, so that’s where the snake locomotion came about.” 

One notable aspect of the COBRA system is its ability to connect both of its ends to create a perfect circle, which allows it to easily roll down hills while using little energy, explained Marble. 

“It can travel an extremely long distance without losing any power,” she said. 

COBRA at Northeastern University

Northeastern Ph.D. student Adarsh Salagame works on a snake-like robot in the Experiential Institute of Robotics’ new lab space inside the EXP research complex. Credit: Matthew Modoono, Northeastern University

HASHI takes a chopstick approach to manipulation

Austin Allison is another one of Padir’s students. A doctoral student studying bioengineering, he is part of the research team that created HASHI, or the Highly Adaptable Seafood Handling Instrument for packaging. 

Allison showed the robotic system in action, which includes a robot arm and end-of-arm tools that look like chopsticks. (Hashi is also the Japanese word for chopsticks.) 

The robot is designed to handle and move small pieces of fish food like sushi, he said. And what’s the best way to handle sushi? With chopsticks, of course. 

“We thought, ‘Well, there’s probably been thousands of civilizations and billions of people throughout history that have used chopsticks not only for sushi but [also] to cook entire meals,’” Allison recalled.  

He noted that each chopstick appendage has three degrees of freedom and can be controlled using a video game controller. The robot chopsticks are able to manipulate the items in hand fairly easily. Ideally, this system could be used for packaging of pre-made meals, such as Lunchables.

“There’s a term in robotics called ‘hand manipulation,’ which is if you want to think of picking something up and doing it like a pinch and roll,” said Allison. “It’s interesting to be able to do it on a small scale.”

HASHI at Northeastern University

HASHI uses videogame controls and could help with seafood packaging. Credit: Matthew Modoono, Northeastern Universit

Northeastern dedicates space at EXP for robotics 

Allison said that the new robotics lab has been a great addition and that he loves that he now has more space to do dedicated research. 

“Our desks are a bit more separated from loud and distracting machinery, as well as larger hardware that is kept on the first floor,” Allison said. “We also have more dedicated rooms for fabrication, like a purpose-build machine shop, an electronics/3D printing/laser cutting room, etc.” 

As he progresses through his doctorate, Allison said he’s excited to check out more of what’s on offer in EXP

“Having future access to some of the previously unavailable tooling in the first floor of EXP — waterjet cutter, CNC router and mill, welding, etc. — will enable me to efficiently prototype and create more advanced hardware for future robotics projects and endeavors,” added Allison.

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