Trojan horse in the sky – USC Viterbi


Rishi Malhan has a private pilot’s license which he uses to explore the skies of Southern California. PHOTO/RISHI MALHAN.

For many people, the idea of ​​flying is uncomfortable. Leaving the ground is not only a feat of human innovation that defies gravity, but also logic. Still growing up in India, Rishi Malhan was obsessed with rockets and airplanes. From their mechanics to their design, he marvels at their development, the innovations that make them go further, faster in the atmosphere. But he would never have imagined that he would one day pilot one of them.

During the pandemic, he spent a year earning his private pilot’s license. Along with learning discipline and patience, he said he had to overcome the trepidation associated with the unknowns of flying. Once he did, he learned more about who he was and gained confidence in his ability to deal with uncertainty.

“Once you overcome the fear, you unite with the plane,” Malhan said. “You conquer it, you have more control over it, you start planning and anticipating…and all the knowledge you get from studying aerodynamics, you see everything happening there,” he said.

A view from the sky.  PHOTO/RISHI MALHAN.

A view from the sky. PHOTO/RISHI MALHAN.

And indeed, he got to see it and experience it all – a journey that began as a child watching aerospace documentaries on TV. Aspiring to be a mechanical engineer and businessman like his father, he first moved to Los Angeles in 2016, imbued with a desire to be at the top of where technology, industry and knowledge progressed and merged.

Initially, as a master’s student at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, he came to discover new hobbies and interests in the field, particularly robotics – which he was introduced to via courses with Professor Satyandra K. Gupta in the Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering.

“This [robotics] involved mechanical engineering and computer science,” he said. “I had studied both components during my undergraduate studies and was looking for an area that could give me hands-on hardware experience and deepen my understanding of its integration with software.”

This interest naturally led Malhan to the USC Viterbi Center for Advanced Manufacturingg, which he says started with a startup atmosphere, where a lot of things had to be built from scratch. “We were buying equipment and building the robotics lab…USC gave us permission to experiment with different machines and ordering what we wanted was needed,” he said. “So it was a bit like starting a business, which was an amazing experience. I don’t know of any other school that has such a robotics facility or would have given a new graduate student so much responsibility. I really appreciate USC for that.

As with any startup, Malhan had to learn quickly to operate with limitations, including limited budgets and space, and also to make early decisions that would have long-term impacts.

“Even though most of our research at the time [2017] was based on smaller robots, we always considered larger robots in our purchases, because we knew that at some point we would get into metal 3D printing, which would require the execution of larger components .

Working alongside Alec Kanyuck, who came to manage CAM’s operations, Malhan said one of the most critical elements of success was led by Professor Gupta’s knowledge and in-depth knowledge, not only on academic elements of the field, but also on industry trends.

“I think that’s one of the biggest strengths of USC: the expertise of the faculty. They are simply amazing. They know what the industry wants and they are so well connected to the industry that they bring it in the form of research to the university. This information is then disseminated to students, like me, and we try to reverse-engineer products that meet these needs,” Malhan said.

heavy metal

Although they say leaders aren’t supposed to play favorites, Malhan has a favorite tool he likes to experiment with.

“I was most excited about the metal 3D printing machine,” he said. “It’s a gigantic machine that takes up an entire room [at CAM]. The sheer cost of running it and the parts it prints are impressive.

But in terms of research, Malhan has a soft spot for robots. His research focuses primarily on movement planning. “Most robots are now used for repetitive tasks. Humans teach robots how to function, but robots don’t really make decisions on their own. What if you wanted to? he said. “You have to plan the path of movement, so the robot understands how to respond to your constraints, etc.”

The field of motion planning involves the use of machine learning coupled with different search and optimization algorithms, Malhan said. While many researchers have worked in this area, Malhan said what interests him most are projects involving robots under duress.

“For example, several robots handling deformable materials are constrained by the physics of the material and each other’s movements. Likewise, for tools interacting with a part to perform specific operations or draw paths on geometry such as in robotic sanding, painting, additive manufacturing. You have to stay in a certain area and follow a specific path, so motion planning under constraints becomes a very difficult problem,” he said.

PHOTO/RISHI MALHAN.

PHOTO/RISHI MALHAN.

Concretely, Malhan has applied these skills with Berkshire Grey, a company that supports e-commerce using robots for order fulfillment. “So if you ordered four or five items, those items will come from the warehouse and the conveyors, and then this robot will take those items and put them in your box. It has to follow a certain path and the constraints are not just spatial , but you have dynamic constraints – if the robot is moving too fast, it can knock your object down and damage it.

At the same time, Malhan said such use of robots was just the beginning. “Over the next two or three years, we envision even greater involvement of AI in robotics,” he said. “It will require a human component. AI systems are good at interpolations but are bad at extrapolating, so humans will have to guide the AI.

Patent pending

One of the major motion planning applications Malhan has worked on is a composite sheet overlay technology for which he has filed a patent application. Composites are mostly used in airplanes now, he said, to make them lighter.

“But all of this manufacturing is done by humans, and humans face consistency issues,” he said. “Robots, by default, are very consistent.”

The patent largely focuses on software regarding motion planning, which helps robots navigate constraints using computer vision, but also a little on the hardware required, e.g. grippers and compliant end-effectors that should be used for robots, Malhan said.

Trojan horse in the sky

After graduation, Malhan returns to work at Berkshire Grey, which he hopes will not only help him hone his technical expertise but also continue to expose him to different departments such as marketing, finance and operations. In the long term, he hopes to start his own company focused on robotics in aviation.

“Aviation is a very conservative market, due to security concerns,” he said. “But I imagine in the next five to six years the FAA will start to open up to AI, and that’s where I want to take the market. I know robotics is the answer to the next big problem. aviation, although I don’t yet know what it will be.

Often our travels come full circle, and for Malhan, his childhood love of aerospace, from jets to rockets, led him to a new, beloved hobby as an adult. He visited aircraft museums and studied different types of aircraft whenever he could. But it wasn’t until one of his friends revealed he had a pilot’s license that Malhan considered learning to fly.

Malhan learned a lot about himself during the strict and rigorous training he underwent. “You have to be disciplined and patient. You need to take the time to make good decisions and be more aware of what you can handle and what you can’t.

“Being in control of so many things at once is very exciting.”

Follow Rishi Malhan’s adventures in the sky on Instagram @trojaninthesky.

Posted May 9, 2022

Last updated May 9, 2022

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