Aerospace graduate student awarded NSF fellowship for robotics research
The three-year fellowship, which covers tuition and a stipend for living expenses, allows students opportunities for international research, professional development and additional resources, such as access to NSF’s supercomputer. This year, the NSF received over 13,000 applications for the competition and made only 2,000 award offers.
“This is a very big honor and one that will follow him around forever,” said Borum’s advisor and Aerospace Engineering Professor Tim Bretl. “It gives him three years of guaranteed funding and a lot of flexibility, so he doesn’t have to work on one particular thing, which is good for someone like him with a variety of interests.”
Borum graduated from Virginia Tech in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in engineering mechanics and mathematics. His research at Illinois focuses on robotic manipulation of flexible objects.
“It is relatively easy to have a robot pick up, manipulate and put down a rigid object, such as a pen,” Borum said. “However, doing this with a flexible object, such as a piece of paper, wire or cable, is much more challenging.”
Borum added that since a piece of paper can take nearly an infinite number of shapes, it’s difficult to give a robot a mathematical description of all the possible shapes a piece of paper could take. Using principles from optimal control theory and differential geometry, Bretl and Borum have created an algorithm to simply communicate the shapes to a robot.
“This problem is something I’ve been thinking about now for four to five years and just before Andy arrived on campus, there was a breakthrough moment in research where we discovered a better, more efficient way to represent the shape of these objects,” Bretl said. “By changing to the new representation we suggested, a lot of problems that were formerly considered very hard suddenly became very easy. A lot of the things I’ve done so far are theoretical, but now we’re trying to extend those basic theoretical results and implement them in hardware.”
Bretl added that within one week of arriving on campus, Borum had re-derived all the work Bretl had done from a different perspective, based on continuum mechanics, that is easier to generalize. This enables them to consider objects that stretch, as well as bend, and also consider dynamic manipulation of objects.Coordinated Science Laboratory to test their theories. Baxter, the robot housed in CSL, is a low-cost robot designed to help automate manufacturing in small and medium sized businesses. They are testing their hardware on Baxter, who could be used to assemble flexible parts, such as installing a cable harness in a car. In addition to the practical side of the research, the researchers are working to add additional aspects to their theory, such as taking into account gravity.
“Right now we don’t account for gravity, which is something that needs to be considered before our approach is implemented in real-world applications,” Borum said.
In addition to applications such as robots handling and assembling flexible parts in manufacturing, Borum is excited about the future possibilities of robotic manipulation of biological tissues, such as robotic surgery or manipulation of nanoscale structures.
“Although the most immediate application of this work is in automated manufacturing, we are also considering possible applications in medicine, biological inspired engineering and nanotechnology,” he said.
In addition to his research, Borum spent his first year at Illinois actively involved with the Education Justice Project, which offers educational programs to students incarcerated at Danville Correctional Center.
In Spring 2013, Bretl taught AE482: Introduction to Robotics, which was the first time an engineering course was offered in the inmate educational program. Robots weren’t allowed in the classroom and computer use was limited, so Borum and a team of student volunteers were tasked with developing labs with creative experiments that would still provide the students with hardware experience.
“It was a challenge to give the students the same hands-on experience that students get when taking the course on campus,” Borum said. “However, we were able to find new ways of doing the experiments that provided the students with hardware experience, by extracting the main components of each lab and reformulating them so that they could be done using pencil and paper.”
Borum and the other volunteers collected data using robots on campus and the inmates used that data, along with videos of the robots, to conduct labs such as calculating, modeling and comparing measurements of joint angles of a robot’s hand while learning about topics such as forward kinematics. Borum is spending this summer revising the lab manual again, to hopefully give the students an even better experience in future years.
“I thought this would be a good way to use some of the skills I have,” Borum said. “At Virginia Tech, I participated in The Big Event, a campus wide community service fair in which students help local residents with household chores, but I thought that volunteering with the Education Justice Project would be more interesting for me and allow me to use some of my robotics knowledge.”