UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering

UC San Diego Embedded Control & Robotics students demonstrate prowess, connect with industry

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Student Elliott LaBarge preps his robot during an industry recognition event for MAE 143c, taught by Thomas Bewley, a professor of mechanical engineering at the Jacobs School.
Related story: Toy manufacturer WowWee and UC San Diego engineers create unique, self-balancing toy robot

San Diego, Calif., Jan. 29. 2014 -- Miniature unmanned Segway-like robots, known as Mobile Inverted Pendulums (MIPs), appeared to defy gravity as they zipped around laptops and notebooks on just two wheels.  In the background, the students who built the MIPs mingled with controls engineers from industry.

That was the scene Dec. 5 at the Industry Recognition Night concluding Prof. Thomas Bewley’s popular, difficult, and freshly reminted MAE143c course, in which each student builds and programs a MIP.  The evening included an awards ceremony and a reception, where students demonstrated their creations as well as their creativity to the key industry partners of UC San Diego’s robotics program: Cymer, Texas Instruments (TI), National Instruments (NI), ATA Engineering, Brain Corporation and WowWee, as well as the leadership of the Jacobs School of Engineering and the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

“We are at the leading edge of a major new initiative in design and robotics within the Jacobs School,” said Bewley, who leads the Coordinated Robotics Lab at UC San Diego. “Our close partnerships with our industry sponsors and collaborators will be essential in moving this initiative forward.”

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Students Catrina Webb and Peter Dvorak give a talk during the event.

Mechanical engineering undergraduate Krishna Naik described the class as his favorite, by far, at UC San Diego. “I am now deeply interested in controls. I can see myself going to graduate school in controls,” said Naik, who directly attributed his excitement in control engineering to this class, in which he got to apply controls theory to a rigorous, hands-on application.  “This class really expanded my thinking. I’ll never think about a Segway or rocket in the same way.  Such advanced systems need feedback control to keep stable,” said Naik.

MAE143c is designed around a central task: build a dynamically unstable robotic system, and develop and implement a controller to keep it balanced. The course involves significant systems integration and debugging, which gives students the opportunity to apply the control theory they have learned in this and previous courses in a realistic environment, time pressures included.

Each working MIP robot, including Naik’s, demonstrated its own personality while balancing on two wheels and moving about.  Some were jittery and tentative, others fluid and relaxed, depending on the details of the feedback control algorithms designed and implemented by the student.  The control algorithm responsible for stabilizing each MIP connected the sensors detecting the vehicle’s movement (miniature accelerometers and gyros as found in smartphones, and miniature encoders counting the wheel revolutions) to the actuators (small brushed DC motors driving the wheels) in a dynamic fashion designed to stabilize this otherwise highly unstable system.  This connection was made via a powerful and inexpensive credit-card-sized Linux computer known as the BeagleBone Black (BBB), programmed appropriately (in most cases) by the students.

In preparation for this year’s offering of MAE143c, the lead TA for the course, James Strawson, designed and manufactured a remarkable new daughterboard for applying the BBB in robotics applications, incorporating power management, accelerometers, gyros and motor controllers, making it easier for the BBB to connect to a host of external sensors and actuators, only a few of which the students encountered in the course.  In addition, ATA VP Clark Briggs and UC San Diego student Boyan Zhang worked together to develop an extensive software library to handle the low-level housekeeping tasks within the BBB and enable easy access to this extensive functionality.  “Each student has a powerful robotic system in front of them; what they have to do is debug and fix various hardware and software problems one by one in an organized fashion to make it balance. The only way to learn this sort of thing is to do it,” said Strawson.

Industry support and collaboration

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Cymer researcher and Jacobs School alum Wayne Dunstan talks to students.

“To see UC San Diego investing in embedded controls means a lot to Cymer. The skills that students obtain in this course are quite valuable to us,” said Wayne Dunstan, Senior Director of Controls at Cymer, an ASML company. Dunstan, who is an alumnus of the Jacobs School, gave an overview of Cymer’s new extreme ultraviolet (EUV) light sources, highlighting the importance of controls in the development of this technology. Cymer was founded by UC San Diego alumni and is a long-time supporter of UC San Diego in many capacities, including the Cymer Center for Control Systems and Dynamics.

Dunstan said he especially likes interacting with recent engineering graduates at Cymer, many of whom come from UC San Diego. “Students coming straight from school are often true innovators and entrepreneurs; they are people who don’t know the boundaries, so they push.”

Another key player in the success of MAE143c is Texas Instruments, which provided extensive engineering support from the BBB development team. “Our team would have stumbled without timely access to the talented engineers from TI,” said Bewley.

At the event, Doug Phillips, Worldwide University Marketing Manager at Texas Instruments highlighted how courses like MAE143c prepare engineers for the modern workplace. “When you look at robotics as a general classification, it is valuable for multifunction learning. You’re not only learning one aspect of engineering – you’re learning about mechanical engineering, embedded processing, motion, sensors, and even analog. This varied background will help these aspiring engineers to be competitive once they enter into the workforce,” said Phillps.

Dave Wilson from National Instruments touched on the importance of “bonding with the theory”, which involves connecting engineering theory with hands-on applications. “The secret is to learn the theory, but iterate on its applications. It’s the type of thing you need to do all through your career.” National Instruments is a long-time collaborator of the Coordinated Robotics lab, which has already resulted in numerous innovative joint ventures.

Senior embedded controls engineer Clark Briggs and his employer ATA Engineering were additional key players in the success of MAE143c. Nineteen engineers from ATA followed the course, including the company’s president, Mary Baker, who said it was both a lot of fun and useful for the future direction of her company.  As a methods development company, Baker said it’s important for ATA Engineering to work between disciplines.  “Every big company we work with has towers of expertise,” said Baker. “Big problems don’t understand the org chart—the problems we see are in between.  Controls engineering is an important tool in solving these `in-between’ problems.”

Mechanical engineering student Catrina Webb learned firsthand how control algorithms can be used to address the problem of a robot with two motors of different strengths. This imbalance initially made her robot twist and turn instead of moving forward and backward.  “I couldn’t just keep swapping out motors until I got two that matched,” said Webb.  Instead, she figured out how to correct the problem in software.  “There were 100 different ways to do it, and we got to choose our own way.  You find the problem, you fix the problem, you make something,” Webb said. “You get an ‘ah-ha’ moment when it works, it stabilizes, and it’s up.  That moment is intoxicating, that’s why I want to be an engineer.”

Marius Buibas, a Jacobs School alum now a Scientist at  Brain Corporation, a Qualcomm Ventures Company, discussed his company’s efforts to build high-performance, low-power cellphone electronics into embedded controller boards destined for robotics applications.  The Coordinated Robotics Lab was the main test user during the development of Brain Corp’s first venture in this area, a Snapdragon-powered board dubbed bStem, which is now available to select users from Brain Corp as a developer’s kit. The first vehicle implementing this board, a high-performance MIP which uses stereo cameras to identify objects in its environment, was shown at the event. The human brain is a low power and high performance computing system that is 80 percent wiring, explained Buibas.

“A brain really is a controller and what you studied in this class are controllers,” he said. “We want to take what you did and give it some autonomy, give it some intelligence.”

Finally, WowWee President Peter Yanofsky talked about how to bring new robotics products successfully to the mass market.  In close collaboration with the UC San Diego Coordinated Robotics Lab, WowWee is bringing an engaging and playful toy version of MIP to market this summer.  Yanofsky also encouraged students to think about the next generation of tinkerers.  “Kids are growing up much younger now, and they understand certain things a lot better.  If we can provide kids with easy tools for programming, and allow them to be creative in their own ways, that’s what it’s all about, that’s what we are here for.”

The future of embedded controls & robotics

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Marius Buibas, a Jacobs School alum and a scientist at San Diego-based Brain Corporation, speaks at the event.

The wide range of opportunities available to engineers who have mastered controls engineering was not lost on the students who took the class.

“Controls is the future in many industries,” said mechanical engineering undergraduate Luke Calkins, who had his robot up and balancing in time for the final lecture. “Robots are taking over manufacturing. Robots need to do what you want them to do.  And for that, you need controls.”

This course is an important move in the right direction for the Jacobs School. “There is nothing more experiential than what you are doing here with the hardware and supervision that you are getting,” said Albert Pisano, Dean of the Jacobs School. “I want to thank everyone involved in making that happen.  When people experience engineering in this very intense way, I think that’s when theory and practice click.  If we can find a way to mainstream this kind of experience to more and more students in the Jacobs school, we are going to move the needle.”

As summarized succinctly by Bewley at the end of the program, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

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Media Contacts

Daniel Kane
Jacobs School of Engineering
Phone: 858-534-3262
dbkane@ucsd.edu Ioana Patringenaru
Jacobs School of Engineering
Phone: 858-822-0899