It’s like something out of science fiction.
Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Yanfei Liu is at the forefront of a new era in automatons with her research into robots that can adapt to their environment by literally changing their shape to respond to different needs.
These advances could completely change how we use and employ robots in everything from sports and entertainment to rescue missions and crisis scenarios.
Robots in Disguise
Liu builds and researches robots—all kinds of robots.
Her research focuses specifically on two types: mobile robots, which use different physical methods to traverse and react to different types of terrain, and modular robots, which have changeable and reconfigurable structures. Liu is then able to test how different robotic builds respond to different environments and needs.
“In different scenarios, these robots can be reconfigured into different shapes,” Liu explains. “It could resemble a snake at first, but it could also use wheels.”
One of Liu’s current projects is a modular robot equipped with a sensor, used to perceive and adapt to its surroundings. Based on the intelligence it gathers, the robot can automatically change into different configurations.
Modular robots could have a dramatic impact in crisis situations like rescue missions.
“If the robot has to go through a tube and enter an open space, a typical wheeled robot would just be too big to fit. But you can break them and put them in a long, worm-like configuration to get through the tunnel, and then change it into a regular wheeled robot once they’re on the other side. They can move faster and get the job done easier.”
Liu is interested in finding ways to improve robotic mobility while boosting the quality of their interactions with their human counterparts—but she and her team of student researchers don’t quite stop there.
“One of the projects we’ve done was to try to develop a robotics pet for dogs, so they could have interactive toys to play with.”
Raised in the Lab
In addition to her research, Liu teaches engineering to students at every level in the College of Engineering, Technology, and Computer Science, ranging from introductory courses on the fundamentals of engineering to graduate-level courses in robotics.
She’s currently developing tech electives for seniors in the engineering program to learn more about robotics and automation.
Involving students, both graduate-level and undergraduate-level, in her research is important to Liu, because it’s all about connections—especially when you spend so much of your time poring over circuit boards in a lab.
“Students can apply to different projects, and a coordinator will put them in the right project for their background and interests,” Liu says.
This kind of hands-on experiential learning often leads to networking opportunities for students with regional and national industry partners, turning their work in the IPFW labs into real prospects for a career after graduation.
Closing the Loop
One of Liu’s favorite things about teaching at IPFW is her ability to connect with students.
“We have a small student body,” she says. “They have a close relationship with their professors. Most of the courses that we offer at the junior level and above have 15 students. You actually know them well enough to guide them through the important steps in their studies, and even their professional career.”
Because Liu and other professors have opportunities to get to know students so well, she is able to recommend them for experiential learning opportunities outside the classroom.
“Hiring companies usually will come to us if they have a project in mind,” she explains. “They want to have a group of senior students work on it, because it’s beneficial to us and to them. The company doesn’t have to hire professional engineers, which costs a lot of money, and our students get real industrial experience.”
Many of Liu’s students land internships in local industries, beginning in their sophomore or junior year. The projects they work on during their internships will also typically count toward their coursework.
Liu’s students have found internship and career opportunities with industry leaders like Franklin Electric, Regal-Beloit, BAE Systems, Northrop Grumman, and Exelis.
Among their many accomplishments, Liu and her students had an opportunity to compete in the RoboCup Project.
RoboCup is an organization that works to stimulate interest in robotics and artificial intelligence by staging competitions between soccer-playing robots.
“We worked together to build a team of robots to play in the RoboCup competition,” Liu recalls. “We spent three years developing robots capable of competing.”
“Our role is to provide the hardware aspect, like sensors,” she explains. “If they’re building a robot that doesn’t have any sensors, there’s no way they can give it artificial intelligence. The robot would be blind—you’re trying to have him go over unknown places without sensing any information. He wouldn’t be able to do it.”
Liu’s background in modular robotics capable of perceiving and adapting to their environment played a critical role in developing robots that were able to bend it like Beckham.
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