IGERT trainee uses Baxter to manipulate flexible objects
In the Bretl Research Group, MechSE graduate student Jacob Wagner will test the group’s theoretical research on flexible object manipulation using the Baxter research robot.
“Flexible object manipulation is one of the big things in robotics right now that is still being explored,” Wagner said. “We know how to manipulate a rigid object pretty well and how to describe that. But we don’t know how to describe flexible objects that move or change and how to control them.”
The research group he joined focuses on developing affordable prosthetic devices and making robots in manufacturing automation increasingly accessible for small businesses. Wagner said that he hopes his research in Aerospace Engineering Professor Tim Bretl’s research group will lead to an array of new capabilities for robots in manufacturing.
“One application (of the flexible object manipulation research) could be possibly having a robot installing wire harnesses in an aircraft … something that typically requires a lot of dexterity and understanding from a human, but which robots just don’t understand at this point,” Wagner said.
Though Wagner’s background is in mechanical engineering, he said that the intersection of neuroscience and robotics fascinates him, and both are programs that the University of Illinois offers. After graduating from Kansas State University with a BS in mechanical engineering, he found Illinois, the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT) in neuroengineering program, and Bretl’s research team.
This year, the IGERT program is enabling Wagner to study neuroscience for the first time, as well as work on interdisciplinary research. The NSF-offered traineeship is meant to equip U.S. PhD scientists, engineers, and educators in different fields and encourage interdisciplinary research.
Bretl’s research group is composed of students from electrical engineering, aerospace engineering, computer science, and neuroscience disciplines.
“I came here a month before classes started to get settled in and acquainted with all the research going on in the lab,” he said. “The cool thing about the Bretl Research Group is that there is a variety of research projects going on.”
Existing projects feature brain, muscle activity, and control-theoretic analysis of body movements. Specific topics include brain machine interfaces, developing prosthetic, robotic hands, theoretical work in robotics, quad copter design for construction use, and manipulation of flexible objects.
While working with Baxter, Wagner plans to begin developing other projects within the research group. He is interested in applying principles of human motor control to develop more robust robotic control.
“I took a machine-learning course last semester, and I hope to incorporate the things I learned into the development of more versatile systems that could help merge the two disciplines,” Wagner said.