Computer scientist receives NSF CAREER award for robotics research

June 26, 2001

TROY, N.Y. -- Srinivas Akella, assistant professor of computer science at Rensselaer, was awarded a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation to develop software that will eventually allow industrial robots to do what they've never done before: manipulate flexible objects.

Akella will receive $399,700 from the NSF over the next five years to develop algorithms for the robotic manipulation, motion planning, and design of articulated, or hinged, objects such as cardboard packaging cartons folded from flat blanks and "pop-up" MEMS (microelectromechanical systems) devices. The goal is to enable simple robots to fold and assemble complex 3-D objects from two-dimensional blanks. Currently, robots are limited to manipulating rigid objects.

"Humans use their hands and fingers and can make accommodations for changes in the shape or size of a cardboard box, for example," Akella said. "A robot isn't as sophisticated or flexible in accommodating change. But robots have an advantage in that they don't get repetitive stress injuries." Akella is developing algorithms to enable industrial robots to accomplish complex manipulation tasks. By using software and interchangeable hardware, standard assembly-line robots can be flexible to changes in product packaging. Akella's techniques would reduce manufacturing costs and time required for new products.

Akella's research may also enable batch fabrication of 3-D pop-up MEMS devices. MEMS devices are typically fabricated from silicon as planar elements. The challenge lies in automating the creation of 3-D micro-optical and microrobotic devices using microhinges to pop these elements out of the plane. Akella is developing design and simulation tools for the automatic manipulation and motion planning of such devices.

In addition to involving undergraduates in this research and developing new courses in robotics and geometric algorithms, Akella is initiating a robotics program using Lego kits with the Junior Museum to interest schoolchildren in science and engineering.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

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