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May 28, 2015      

Unlike many countries, the United Arab Emirates has been successful in encouraging women to enroll in science and technology programs. About half of Khalifa University‘s engineering and robotics students are female. A combination of local culture, government incentives, and demand from the nuclear power industry has helped the United Arab Emirates lead the way.

Khalifa University has a well-balanced student body.

Prof. Laursen speaks at Khalifa University’s commencement.

“At King’s College in London, where I worked … only about 10 percent [of engineering students were female], so that’s one of the positives here,” Lakmal Seneviratne, director of the Khalifa University Robotics Institute (KURI), told The National. “In the U.K. and U.S., women’s participation in engineering education has been low, ranging from about 10 percent some years ago to about 15 to 20 percent now. At KU, we have a much higher proportion of women studying engineering — about 50 percent — and this is reflected in robotics.”

The Middle East has been investing heavily in nuclear power, and Khalifa University has tied its basic research to serving local industry, both in expertise and in potential staffers, said Tod A. Laursen, the university’s president and a former faculty member at Duke University. Nuclear power plants require skilled personnel, as well as robots for hazardous duties and potential disaster response, he explained.

Making search and rescue robots smarter
Hend Al Tair is among the women studying robotics at KU. She is a doctoral student from Ras al-Khaimah, the northernmost emirate in the United Arab Emirates, and she is working on a search and rescue robot that can react autonomously. Al Tair, who helped organize KU’s Women in Engineering Forum, is currently focusing on modeling a decision-making engine.

“Despite the fact that robots have reached a high level of autonomy in recent years, the need for human element in certain situations is still essential, especially in search and rescue operations,” she said.

Al Tair is working on knowledge-semantic maps for improved collaboration between humans and robots at KURI in Abu Dhabi. Other students are working on environment mapping and programming a robot to retrieve a nuclear sample.

Disaster-response robots need to work quickly rather than wait for human controls, she said. ?The communication process, instructions, clarification, can be time-consuming. You can teach the robot to understand the environment,” Al Tair said. “I want the robots to have some kind of intelligence to take and share decisions.”

KU’s robots could be useful to disaster response beyond nuclear incidents. Robots have already been used in responding to multiple disasters, Al Tair noted, from a 2004 earthquake in Niigati Chuestsu, Japan, through a 2014 earthquake in Yunnan, China, as well as in Fukushima, Japan, and Nepal.

Emirates Initiates Robotics Challenge

Khalifa University will be hosting the Mohamed Bin Zayed International Robotics Challenge, which will award prizes worth a total of $5 million every two years. The first challenge will be to develop unmanned aerial and ground vehicles (UAVs and UGVs) that can execute a series of tasks in a complex, dynamic environment. The UAVs and UGVs will need to navigate and act autonomously.

The competition will consist of three challenges and a triathlon-style “Grand Challenge.” The first challenge will require a UAV to find and land atop a moving ground vehicle, and the second one will require a UGV to find and reach a second ground vehicle and operate a valve on its side.

The third challenge will require a team of UAVs to find, pick, and place a set of static and moving objects, and the Grand Challenge will require UAVs and UGVs to perform a combination of tasks from the first three contests. The contestants will be judged by an independent panel of international robotics experts, said a press release.

“Challenges issued in this event will stretch participants a bit beyond the current state of the art, such that new developments and discoveries will be needed for success,” said Khalifa University President Tod Laursen in a statement. “We believe that a bit of audacity in challenge specification is key to the innovation process.”

Proposals are due June 15, 2015, and applications are due in August. Participants will be chosen in October, and a “preparation camp” will open in May 2016. The competition will conclude in November 2016. Each team of finalists will get $500,000, and the overall winner will receive $2 million.

“This competition is motivated by the technological challenges facing next-generation robotics, which are poised to have a transformative impact in a variety of new markets,” said Mohammed Al Mualla, senior vice president for research and development at Khalifa University.

Dubai recently also announced a similar competition called the “U.A.E. AI & Robotics Award for Good,” which would award a top prize of AED1 million and an international prize of $1 million (U.S.) for artificial intelligence and robotics applications in education, healthcare, and social services.

“The big challenge lies in making the robot capable of multi-agent decision-making,” she explained via e-mail to Robotics Business Review. “You need to first define the agent as a separate entity; it could be hardware — a robot, a software agent, and/or a human (as an intelligent agent).”

The multi-agent capabilities need to account for the complexity of planning multiple tasks, uncertainty in unstable environments, and the robot components themselves, Al Tair said. Other factors include human unpredictability and the level of communications between unmanned vehicles and humans.

Although the “current capabilities of robots are still not enough to have a real collaborative behavior with humans,” the decision-making research could have other, commercial applications, said Al Tair. “Examples include healthcare, education, or any service where there is collaboration between robots and humans.”

At minimum, a laser and a camera are required sensors, but additional equipment may be required depending on the scenario, she said. Al Tair said that her research will likely continue for another year. Field tests are being planned.

The project is funded by the Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Program for Graduate Studies, a scholarship program for United Arab Emirates nationals named after its crown prince.

Emiratis respect women in robotics
As for encouraging engineering education, Al Tair credited the late Shaikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who founded the United Arab Emirates and “taught us the importance of investing in people. Minds are the real wealth of any country. Well-educated women [are] what is required to have a well-educated generation.”

The number of mothers who are pursuing Ph.D.s in engineering “is inspiring — how they find balance and still do a good job in both,” said Al Tair. Other nations in the region tend to have fewer female scientists.

“Engineering is one of the fields that opens minds,” said Al Tair. “Engineering is an attractive field for an Emirati woman, especially as often her father, brothers, or uncles are also engineers. … The government made it easy when all sectors welcomed female engineers.”

“The engineering profession in general holds a lot of prestige in the U.A.E., and we find that the families of our female students are very highly supportive and proud of their daughters, wives, and siblings studying these subjects,? said Laursen.

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