Funding will help team develop ‘plug-and-play’ robots

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

With more and more robots headed for the commercial world, a Waterloo Engineering researcher hopes to speed their arrival by developing cheaper, general-purpose control systems.

At the moment, the high cost of customized robotics applications in workplaces such as warehouses and manufacturing plants largely limits them to huge companies with plenty of money to invest.

Stephen Smith in his robotics lab at Waterloo Engineering.

Stephen Smith, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, is building a team at Waterloo Engineering to develop cheaper control systems for robots.

But with help from a $140,000 award announced today, Stephen Smith is building a research team to make robots affordable for smaller operations with “plug-and-play” systems that would only have to be adjusted and adapted, not built from scratch.

“Essentially, you’ll press ‘go’ and the robot will start executing,” said Smith, a professor of electrical and computer engineering who specializes in control and motion algorithms for mobile robots, especially multiple mobile robots. “Possibly it’ll stop a few times to ask if it’s doing things right and obtain feedback.”

21 researchers share $2.3 million in funding

Smith is one of 21 researchers at the University of Waterloo receiving a total of $2.3 million from the provincial government through its Early Researcher Awards (ERA) and Ontario Research Fund-Research Infrastructure (ORF-RI) programs.

Included are eight Waterloo Engineering researchers in line for a combined $860,000 in funding.

Selected in addition to Smith for $140,000 early research awards to build teams to advance their work are:

  • Vijay Ganesh (electrical and computer engineering) – solvers for security via a combination of machine learning and deduction.
  • Mark Hancock (management sciences) – game and interaction science: using principles from games to design novel interfaces that compel and motivate.
  • Hyung-Sool Lee (civil and environmental engineering) – leveraging advanced microbial electrochemical cell technologies for sustainable wastewater treatment.

Awarded various amounts for equipment and infrastructure to support their research are:

  • Amir Khandani (electrical and computer engineering) – infrastructure for 5G wireless cellular networks and Internet of Things - $75,000.
  • Michael Pope (chemical engineering) – facility for in situ characterization of next-generation electrochemical devices - $50,000.
  • Lan Wei (electrical and computer engineering) – a versatile multi-physics device and circuit characterization and testing platform - $125,000.
  • Aiping Yu (chemical engineering) – development of advanced nanostructured graphene materials for clean energy storage - $50,000.

'Exciting time to be working in robotics'

In addition to the ERA funding, to be provided over five years, Smith was awarded $120,000 in June through the federal government’s Discovery Accelerator Supplements Program for research on real-time motion planning for complex robotics tasks.

He expects the field to explode over the next few years, fuelled by massive investments by major technology companies, and looks forward to playing a role, including projects with companies such as Clearpath Robotics of Kitchener, which was started by four Waterloo Engineering graduates.

“They’ll become something you see all over the place,” said Smith. “It’s an exciting time to be working in robotics.”

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