Passion for dance moves new professor toward improved control systems
For new MechSE assistant professor Amy LaViers, discovering her interest in robotics more or less happened overnight.
“On the last day of my junior year at Princeton, I had a control class and my dance seminar,” LaViers said. “After a class on the system dynamics of bicycles and another on Twyla Tharp’s choreography, it hit me—those are both control systems.”
Thanks to that discovery, LaViers has since had a definitive focus for her research. She combines her two passions—mechanical engineering and dance—in a unique and useful way in her group, the Robotics, Automation, and Dance (RAD) Lab.
Building upon existing low-level controllers, the RAD Lab, which includes six graduate and four undergraduate students, creates sequencing and modulation schemes to help the robots perform complex and varied movements. With her training in dance and enrollment in an ongoing program in movement analysis through the Laban/Bartenieff Institute for Movement Studies (LIMS), LaViers is familiar with the art of analyzing and describing movement, and she uses this information to develop high-level abstractions for robotic control and to analyze movement quantitatively.
“Within the development of high-level controllers, I’d like to make control knobs that are aligned with how people think about designing movement,” LaViers said. “My lab tries to do this by studying choreography and person-to-person movement in order to design robotic algorithms for tools and concepts that are important to human movers – and that anyone can use.”
LaViers’ transition to Illinois from a position at the University of Virginia was somewhat serendipitous. When she was giving a talk here last fall, she found the campus culture was one she enjoyed so much she was inspired to work here.
“I appreciate that so many people here are working on so many amazing research projects and yet are still able to be engaged in other’s work,” LaViers said. “It’s a pretty unique intellectual environment.”
LaViers is working on a variety of research projects that focus on the advancement of strategies for sequencing robotic movements to mirror human movement strategies. With MechSE professor Naira Hovakimyan’s group and alongside other disciplines on campus, she is developing supervisory controllers for the ASPIRE robotic project, designing a system to use movement qualities that engender comfort and utilize rhythmic abstractions for timing coordination.
She is also continuing a collaboration with the University of Virginia’s Music Department to design movement and sound correspondences to increase humans’ perception of robotic movement quality.
Additionally, she has funding proposals in the works for a core-located actuation strategy for variable gait and a high-level task description that will allow robotic systems to take advantage of redundancies in movement strategies. These projects have applications in a range of domains, including defense, advanced manufacturing, and health.
“The great thing about Illinois is that it is a wonderful place for collaborations,” LaViers said. “You need a lot of different skills to ensure a project succeeds, and my interdisciplinary work with the ASPIRE grant is a great example.”
LaViers earned her bachelor’s degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering and a certificate in dance from Princeton University in 2009, and an MS and PhD in electrical and computer engineering from Georgia Tech in 2010 and 2013.