Robotics team qualifies for semifinals of global competition


Someday you can send a robot to attend a meeting for you. It’s like you’re there, except you’re not.

Agile avatar robots, collaborative mechanical systems that make a human operator in one place feel like they are in another place, will be at the center of an international competition that includes the Northeastern robotics team, among 37 of 150 clubs around the world to advance to the semi-finals of a $ 10 million contest.

Members of the Northeastern robotics team at work in the campus lab. Photo by Alyssa Stone / Northeastern University

Six members of the varsity team leave Boston on Monday for Miami, where they will face clubs from Canada, Russia, Colombia, South Korea and other countries from September 11 to 13. The top 20 teams will share the $ 2 million prize. They will advance to the finals in the fall of 2022 for a chance to win a portion of the $ 8 million scholarship.

The Northeastern team, led by a professor of mechanical and industrial engineering Peter Whitney, is made up of Stephen Alt, who is pursuing a master’s degree in computer science; Eric Schwarm, who is in the sixth year of mechanical engineering studies; mechanical engineering graduate student Chunpeng wang; graduate student in computer engineering Rui luo; and Tarik Kelestemur; who is pursuing a doctorate in robotics and machine learning.

Judges will research robots to perform a wide range of tasks involving social and physical interactions designed to mimic real-world scenarios, says Whitney. Tasks include attending a meeting, visiting a museum where the robot operator physically interacts with objects, and putting together a puzzle.

“All dimensions of human-to-human interaction are up for grabs,” says Whitney.

Eric Schwarm, graduate student in mechanical engineering and Pushyami Kabeti, graduate student in computer science, adjust the hand that operates the robot. The two are part of a group of students who will participate in Miami in September in an international robotics competition. Photos by Alyssa Stone / Northeastern University

What makes the XPrize avatar Different from other robotics competitions is that judges, not competing teams, put mechanical systems to the test. After a one hour training period, the judges are the operators and they are the ones with whom the avatar interacts.

“So we don’t play a role in the competition,” says Whitney. “It’s a little scary to only have an hour to train someone to use your system. And that gives you an idea of ​​how easy your system is to use. “

He points out that some of the judges will be robotics experts, while others will have extensive experience in other fields such as virtual reality or computer systems. “And that makes it a big challenge for us to design our system, not only to be very functional for skilled operators, but it must also be very functional for novice operators. “

One of the advantages of Northeastern before the competition is the frequent interactions between the hardware and software teams of the robotics lab at the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex.

Rui Luo, a graduate student in computer engineering, puts the mechanical arm to the test. Photo by Alyssa Stone / Northeastern University

“We have hardware and software on the same floor and in the same lab,” says Schwarm. “We see each other every day and work together on everything. “

Another advantage is that the students on the team come from several research groups with expertise in different fields, adds Whitney.

For example, as a professor of electrical and computer engineering Hanu singh, they have expertise in mobile systems which are reliable and can operate under adverse communication and network quality conditions. As a teacher Taskin Padir, they have a solid knowledge of human-machine systems and system interface design.

“And then in my group we are focusing on touch technology which gives the operator the ability to have a fine sense of touch,” says Whitney. “No part of the system is the most important part. They all work together.

The combination of all of these skills and know-how gives rise to optimism that Northeastern’s Mechanical Arm will promote human-to-human interaction between the person using the robot and the human recipients of that interaction.

“Because that’s the ultimate goal of this competition,” says Whitney. “It’s about human-to-human connection, not about human-to-robot connection.”

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