Mines Professor Receives NSF Career Award

by | Apr 10, 2017 | Inside Mines, Spring 2017

Colorado School of Mines Mechanical Engineering Assistant Professor Xiaoli Zhang received an NSF CAREER Award for her project on human-robot interaction teleoperations.

“My work is focused on how humans and robots collaborate, especially in teleoperations, where the human and the robot are not in the same location,” said Zhang. Normally the user operates a keyboard, a mouse or a joystick to remotely control the robot. Teleoperations involves several challenges, such as the indirect visualization and manipulation, as well as the discrepancy between the robotic grip and the device being used to manipulate it.

Zhang explained, “Even using a data glove, the physical structure of a human hand and the robot’s hand are extremely different. If we want robots to do fine manipulations like a human can, we must solve this control problem.”

One of the most successful employments of robotic teleoperations is in a hospital surgical room, where it might be used to remove a gallbladder through a surgical robot. However, there are several situations where teleoperations are also extremely helpful, such as in repairing or inspecting mines, space exploration, search and rescue operations and anywhere that is difficult or dangerous for humans to access.

“The field of robotics is growing quickly, and robots are getting smarter,” said Zhang. “Ultimately, if we want a robot to think like a human, to be intelligent and have autonomy and the capability to regulate itself in order to work with humans, the robots have to first become more aware of how humans achieve those things. Even when it comes to something as simple as picking up a cup, there are multiple ways we approach it, depending on whether our goal is to pass it to someone else, place it on a shelf, drink from it or wash it. We have to investigate our own behavior patterns in order to formulate a knowledge-based model through machine learning methods for a robot.”

The primary research goal of this project is to develop a novel goal-guided control interface. Instead of passively following the operator’s motion input, the robot will understand the operator’s high-level objective during an object-grasping operation and autonomously conform to task constraints in order to reduce control difficulties and ensure the success of subsequent manipulation.

Another component of Zhang’s research is improving distancelearning systems using robotic teleoperations. When students are in a different location from the instructor, it is a challenge to involve students physically. Zhang hopes to develop an interactive distance-learning system that will involve remote students using teleoperated robots. The system will immerse remote users in the classroom environment by having students control a robot’s arms and hands for object manipulation or interaction with other classmates in the classroom. This will enable remote users to feel present in the classroom and engaged in class activities.

Ultimately, Zhang hopes to reduce the control burden on the human operator, and as she puts it, “the goal is and always has been to improve how robots can help humans.”

The National Science Foundation CAREER Award is the most prestigious award in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations.