“Engineering the Way” is the slogan of the Colorado School of Mines. The catchphrase aptly defines how the public research university, which is devoted to engineering and applied science, approaches robotics.
CSM is one of a few institutions with broad expertise in resource exploration, extraction, production, and utilization.
CSM’s Center for Automation, Robotics, and Distributed Intelligence (CARDI) engages in interdisciplinary research within the fields of robotics and automation, control systems, computer vision and intelligence, distributed systems and networking, and data/information.
“Our first-rate facilities and partnerships with industry, national laboratories, other universities, funding agencies, and international institutions enable us to maintain our cutting-edge research and have a significant impact on real-world problems, says Anthony Dean, CSM’s senior vice president for research and technology transfer.
Safety first with resource-extraction robots
CSM students, working with mechanical engineering professor John Steele and electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) professor Qi Han, recently developed an unmanned robot designed to automate oil and gas inspection processes.
Refinery employees have long been exposed to the dangers of explosions, gas leaks, and extreme weather conditions. “We’re trying to get robots to do the same operations humans can do,” Steele says. “By taking the human out of harm’s way, we are increasing safety.”
The project, which began in September 2012 and wrapped up late last year, focused on building, testing, and delivering a robot prototype that could be used for inspections of refineries and other industrial field environments.
“The robot was constructed for faculty at the [Abu Dhabi] Petroleum Institute to be used as a first example of an inspection robot,” Steele says. “It is being used to train graduate students [and] to demonstrate to the PI’s industrial partners the technology that can be used for field inspection applications in the oil and gas industry.”
The robot is equipped with a methane gas sensor, a video camera, a microphone, thermal imaging, GPS, a digital compass, a laser-based range finder, and Wi-Fi sensors and devices. The technologies are designed to help the robot navigate, avoid collisions, and send information back to a control room operator.
The final, fully functional robot is capable of autonomous navigation and obstacle avoidance in both indoor and outdoor environments. It also allows human-robot shared control for collaborative operation, Steele says. “Future work will focus on the implementation of inspection tasks and the development of machine intelligence for situational decision-making,” he says.
Although the robot was designed for use in the oil and gas Industry, Steele notes that it could also be adapted to mining applications. “We have, in fact, driven it in our CSM experimental mine,” he says. CSM researchers have also investigated several other mining robotics technologies, include MineSENTRY, a search and rescue robot.
Steele says he believes that inspection robots will eventually be found in most refineries and related industrial environments. “I think you will see fielded systems in the five- to 10-year time frame, depending on the economics and the level of hazards encountered in new developments,” he says.
CSM robots reach into rehabilitation
CSM robotics projects also include fields far beyond the world of refineries and mines. In fact, robot applications in medicine and physical rehabilitation are rapidly becoming a CSM research specialty.
Mechanical engineering professor Ozkan Celik and two CSM students recently designed a robotic exoskeleton, dubbed the “Wrist Gimbal,” that promises to help stroke patients perform repetitive movement therapy tasks.
“Wrist Gimbal is a forearm and wrist rehabilitation exoskeleton,” Celik says. “Its main purpose is helping individuals with neurological impairments, such as stroke and spinal cord injury, regain sensorimotor function through game-like movement exercises with personalized assistance provided by the robot.”
Based on a previous model Celik designed, the new robotic device focuses on two rotational degrees of freedom and is expected to cost less than $5,000.
“Similar to many other projects in rehabilitation robotics, we would like to improve the therapy outcomes for patients and make the devices and technologies we are developing easier to access,”Celik says. “The accessibility aspect brings with it the requirements of reasonable cost and a compact design, which have been important design considerations for us.”
Since wheelchairs are not uncommon for stroke patients, the team developed a robotic exoskeleton that a stroke patient could be strapped into while seated. Patients are asked to hold onto the device and use wrist movements to complete assessment exercises that determine their maximum range of motion. The robot applies force to aid or deter movements and records responses in specific tasks.
The use of robots in physical therapy provides various benefits, Celik says, including increased patient motivation as well as providing a repetitive and intensive movement exercise capability. “Our game-like interface exerts assistive forces to stimulate patients and prompt them to complete exercises with assistance,” he notes.
David Long, a senior mechanical engineering student and president of CSM’s Robotics Club, worked on the mechanical design and 3-D-printed, machined, and laser-cut several of the parts of the device. He also specialized in the robot?s control system.
The system generates data that can be used to objectively and accurately quantify motor-function improvement levels. “The primary goals of rehabilitation robotics are to improve the therapy outcomes for the patients, to make these novel and improved therapy technologies and protocols more accessible, and to eventually … reduce associated costs,” Celik says.
Celik notes that physical and occupational therapists will be able to use the Wrist Gimbal in physical therapy sessions of stroke or spinal cord injury patients. “It would be used at rehabilitation centers and clinics,” he says. “We have ongoing efforts for conducting clinical testing of the robot with stroke patients through a collaboration with the Colorado Neurological Institute.”
The researchers have built two functional Wrist Gimbal prototypes. “The second version is at a stage that is ready for clinical testing,” Celik says. “We are currently exploring [the] design of additional games for therapy tasks [and] to further reduce device cost and to implement interaction force-sensing and estimation capability.”
Celik believes that rehabilitation applications will drive interest in exoskeletons over next three years. “Recently, several hard exoskeletons became available as commercial products, and one lower-extremity exoskeleton [has] already received FDA approval,” he notes.
Celik expects that a wider variety of exoskeletons will eventually become available at various price points. “On the research side, I believe there will be significant research interest and advancements for soft exoskeletons in the next few years,” he says.
Robotic awareness guides surgery
CSM mechanical engineering professor Xiaoli Zhang and graduate student Songpo Li have developed a “gaze-contingent-controlled” robotic laparoscope system that can help surgeons perform laparoscopic surgery.
Laparoscopy is an operation performed in the abdomen or pelvis through small incisions. A camera-equipped laparoscope, inserted through the incision, allows the surgeon to view the surgical field on a monitor. Unlike open surgery, laparoscopic surgeries can reduce scarring, blood loss, recovery times, and post-operative pain. Yet due to limitations of holding and positioning the laparoscope, surgeons struggle with physiologic tremors, fatigue and a fulcrum effect.
“Our intelligent attention-aware robotic laparoscope aims to eliminate some of these physical and mental burdens of the surgeon by eliminating laparoscope intervention from the surgeons’ to-do list,” Zhang says.
The robot arm holds the camera so the surgeon doesn’t have to. “The camera is controlled effortlessly — wherever you look, the camera will autonomously follow your viewing attention,” Zhang says. “It frees the surgeon from laparoscope intervention so the surgeon can focus on instrument manipulation only.”
The system tracks the surgeon’s viewing attention by continuously analyzing gaze data. “When the surgeon’s eyes stop on a new fixation area, the robot adjusts the laparoscope to show a different field of view that focuses on the new area of interest,” Zhang explains.
To validate the procedure’s effectiveness, the team tested six clinical participants on visualization tasks. The participants reported “they could naturally interact with the field of view without feeling the existence of the robotic laparoscope,” Zhang says.
“Using this system, the surgeon can perform the operation solo, which has great practicability in situations like the battlefield and others with limited human resources,” she says. “We anticipate that our technologies could have other applications, such as us for the disabled and the elderly, who may have difficulty with upper-limb movements.”
Recognizing the interdisciplinary needs of robotics
CSM’s recognition of the importance of robotics education and research to students in virtually all engineering fields extends back decades. In 1989, the school’s curriculum committee approved two interdisciplinary minors: one in robotics and the other in robotics and artificial intelligence. The required courses are primarily a combination of electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and computer science courses.
“The minors are still on the books, but [they] need to be updated,” a spokesperson observes. “We believe that offering minors is important to foster the interest and learning of students at CSM who are interested in CARDI topics.”