Major NSF Grant Funds Robotics Research

Tuesday, September 24, 2013 - 14:00
Audrey St. John and students collaborate in the Pop-Up Media Lab to develop robots for a prototyping platform. Photo by Michael Malyszko

Audrey St. John is a theoretical computer scientist, but her research may someday result in something very concrete. She envisions teams of robots performing search-and-rescue missions in areas too dangerous for humans.

A five-year, $411,531 CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) will allow St. John to dig deeply into this promising line of research. And much of the funding will also help St. John’s Mount Holyoke College students get in on the ground floor of an emerging area of computer science.

“When writing the grant proposal, it was important to incorporate teaching, mentoring, and advising of students into my research plan,” said St. John. “At Mount Holyoke, I see the potential we have to impact the field by producing women computer scientists.” Women are still underrepresented in the field, but recently Mount Holyoke has had as many female computer science majors as some institutions with ten times our student enrollment.

The grant—the NSF’s most prestigious award for junior faculty—will fund two student assistants each summer, jump-start St. John’s research program, and support development of two new courses that involve students in robotics and the related area of computer vision.

In the more advanced of these, students will build robots from scratch. They will use three-dimensional computer-aided design software to develop, and a 3-D printer to create, the robots. Then St. John and her students will experiment with ways of controlling groups of robots to complete a task together. One application for such synchronized robotic movement, St. John says, would be to move objects in environments too toxic for human beings.

But long before anything that complex can be attempted, the basics of coordinating multiple robots’ movements must be mastered. This involves St. John’s work in “rigidity theory,” which mathematically addresses maintaining the shape of a set of objects. Think, for example, of how geese stay in a “V” formation while the entire flock moves forward and changes altitude. Similarly, she said, “I hope to create a protocol for each of the robots to follow when picking up something together. And once they pick it up, they need to keep the same shape and move in formation to finish the task.”

St. John, Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of Computer Science, has taught at Mount Holyoke since 2008. She will use some of the grant money to support popular hands-on workshops in which students learn to create such things as video games and wearable electronics.

—By Emily Harrison Weir