Undergraduates find a future in robotics lab over summer
San Diego, CA, September 1, 2015 -- Gerardo Gonzalez had never seriously considered going to graduate school before his summer internship in mechanical and aerospace engineering professors Jorge Cortes’ and Sonia Martinez's Multi-Robot (MURO) lab. “The sense of satisfaction I had after we got our robot to work helped change my perspective and gain an understanding of control theory,” said Gonzalez. “At one point, the formula that enabled our success was someone's research; now, it is being used all over the world! To answer questions that will have an impact in the real world – that is what motivates me to go to graduate school. The summer research program has helped me see that.”
Gonzalez is part of the California Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (CAMP) in Science, Engineering and Mathematics program at UC San Diego. The program provides support and advancement opportunities to students defined as underrepresented by the National Science Foundation (NSF) who are seeking bachelor's degrees in a STEM field. One of the services offered by CAMP is the opportunity to conduct research in a lab over the summer. Gonzalez and fellow student Julio Martinez had the opportunity to work on a robotics project in Cortes’ and Martinez's MURO lab that is funded, in part, by Northrop Grumann Corporation.
Left to right: Aaron Ma, Shengdong Liu, Gerardo Gonzalez, Bruno Maciel
“I received an email from the CAMP coordinator at UC San Diego saying that professors Cortes and Martinez were looking for undergraduates to work in their lab,” said engineering science and applied mathematics double major Julio Martinez. “It was the perfect opportunity for me to explore the possibility of going to graduate school.”
Both Martinez and Gonzalez were paired with graduate students working in the lab to help tackle an ongoing project in robot formation and control. They are helping to create a scenario in which a leaderless group of robots spreads out evenly over a designated area.
“The research has applications in defense and surveillance,” said Gonzalez. “If we could send a group of robots in to survey a danger zone, we could potentially lower the risks for humans in such a situation.”
The robots the students are using in the lab this summer
To do this, the robots need to be able to recognize where they are in relation to one another and their target survey zone.
Martinez is working with Ph.D. student Evan Gravelle and others in the lab to create something called a Voronoi diagram.
“A Voronoi diagram allows us to split an area that has multiple robots in it so it is shared evenly,” said Martinez. “Once you have a diagram, you want the robots to go to the center of their area. However, once they move, the boundary lines in the diagram change – that’s the challenge.”
While Martinez and his team perfect their diagram, Gonzalez is working with Masters student Aaron Ma and a few other students to calibrate the robots and develop an app that tells the robots what formation to assume while maintaining their positions as defined by the Voronoi diagram.
Martinez and Gonzalez both say that fundamental engineering courses in C programming and Java helped them prepare for this summer’s work.
“Without Intro to C Programming (ECE15), I think I would have struggled a lot because we are using C++ to program the robots and the app,” said Gonzalez.
Martinez says he never learned C++, but read a lot about it. “For me, it was Intro to Java (CSE11) that was instrumental in preparing me for this internship,” said Martinez. “Java and C++ are both object-oriented, so there is a lot of overlap. I also found Algorithms and Programming (SE9) helpful – I like to sketch my designs in MATLAB and then try them in C++.”
As for the future, while the project helped to shift Gonzalez’s perspective on graduate school, Martinez already knew that’s where he would end up. “Even though I’m leaning towards a career in computation and mathematics as opposed to robotics, this project has helped me hone skills that transfer to almost any lab in graduate school,” said Martinez.