Cutting edge robotic technologies building in the basement

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Students involved in the Human Interactive Robotics Lab, lead by Nina Robson, Ph.D., researches and experiments with robotic hands like the one above. (Mariah Carrillo / Daily Titan)

Dozens of eager eyes look nervously at a computer screen—months of work on a Mars rover are on the line—it clambers over rock-studded terrain until at last, a boulder nearly the size of the rover lies in its path; with a little effort, and a fair amount of time, the rover clears the obstacles to the cheers of its creators—the celebration doesn’t last long, class is over.

The simulated Mars environment is just one of the many tools students can make use of in the Human Interactive Robotics Lab—a multidisciplinary arm of the college of Engineering and Computer Science—led by Nina Robson, Ph.D.

Robson teaches a senior design course that takes full advantage of the lab, by giving students real world applications.

“Students work in multidisciplinary teams on projects, and all those projects come out of industry,” Robson said.

Robson—who holds three master’s degrees in the robotics and engineering field; as well as a doctorate in mechanical and aerospace engineering—is passionate about her field and teaching students.

“It is a one year long class, so we become like a family,” Robson said.

The Human Interactive Robotics Lab is primarily used to help students experiment, test and create products through corporately funded research endeavors—there are a total of eight projects this year ranging from a Mars rover to an exoskeleton arm designed to help the elderly lift heavy objects.

“If the students are interested, then they get working on the project—nobody is pushing them to do that,” Robson said. “Until a collaborator shows up that says something fascinating and offers something interesting for the student, then they jump on.”

Corporate sponsors vary from companies looking to focus on automation, particularly in regards to human health, to massive companies like the Walt Disney Company, which has sponsored three projects on campus this year.

Sean Yates, a mechanical engineering major, is the project lead for one of Disney’s projects that tasks students to improve braking systems for Disney rides.

“One of our overall goals to be able to test (the brakes) more frequently, because they use an annual test right now,” Yates said.

Yates hopes to use his experience on the project and his field of study to find a place within Disney’s engineering department.

“Ever since I was little, I’ve always wanted to work for the Disney corporation,” Yates said.

Robson’s senior design program connects students with employers from many fields, but the lab seems to make full use of its equipment when it is used for robotics.

Christopher Nguyen, also a mechanical engineering major, is the project leader for Cal State Fullerton’s entry into the University Rover Challenge—a competition started by the Mars Society to create the next generation of Mars rovers.

“There are 41 teams that are enrolled in the competition,” Nguyen said. “This competition requires us not only to do engineering, but as well as science, so that would entail pH analysis and moisture analysis.”

This isn’t a task mechanical engineering students could achieve alone, and thus they often turn to other departments for guidance or to even recruit students from those departments to their projects.

The theme of diversity is one that echoes not only through the lab’s multidisciplinary functions, but profoundly resonates with the lab’s founder as well.

Robson is currently an ambassador for the Women in Robotics Initiative, which was started by the International Journal of Advanced Robotics Systems.

“As a woman in engineering and ambassador … I am really passionate about diversity,” Robson said. “(The Human Interactive Robotic Lab) is an extension of my efforts to bring more female students and students with disability to choose engineering as their future career.”

Robson said she hopes that the success of her Human Interactive Robotic Lab will draw a more diverse group of students to the field of robotics.

Students from a wide array of disciplines—from kinesiology to geology—have found success in Robson’s senior design program; and for those students looking to get into futuristic technologies—its hard to get more cutting edge than robotic arms for the elderly or rovers designed for far off planets.

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