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  • Writer's pictureRyan Bailis

Living in Small-town America, Working on Big-time Robots

This summer, I had the opportunity to develop flexible, pneumatically controlled robots as a member of Bucknell Professor Keith Buffinton’s Soft Robotics Lab. The research I conducted has allowed me to sharpen my engineering acumen, mature my technical communication skills, and develop a sense of process that, when invoked properly, can lead to novel scientific discovery. There were many challenges along the way, but these proverbial roadblocks increased my determination to improve the technology and prove that soft robots are practical for in-home use. 

Here I am presenting a poster at the Susquehanna Valley Undergraduate Research Symposium on July 31, 2019. (The poster can be viewed at the bottom of this post.)

On my quest to communicate and tell stories better, I’ve decided to talk openly about my challenges and successes this summer, focusing on what I learned and what, I hope, others can learn as well. I firmly believe that a key ingredient to learning is meaningful reflection, and the best way to do that is by making the ideas inside my head free and open-source. So, as I reflect on my summer and document my key learning moments (LM), share with me your thoughts. I’d love to hear them. 

LM 1: It’s okay to work on something you’re not explicitly assigned. 

I officially started research the first week of June. Because I had been involved with the project since January 2019, I was familiar with the lab equipment and experimental setup. During that first week, I worked for about 40 hours, about half of what I had worked over the course of the entire semester, January through May. I quickly found that committing a considerable amount of time to a project I cared about was giving my summer profound meaning. 

Two or three weeks into the summer, I decided to work on something that was attempted by past research assistants, but never fully implemented. Our experimental setup lacked a sophisticated device that would track the motion of our robot as it moves about the workspace. Since soft-robots are built from compliant materials, it’s difficult to keep track of their movement when they are actuated. So I decided to take the initiative and develop a 3D motion capture system using a USB webcam we had laying around. If I could get this to work, it would dramatically speed up a workspace mapping test, taking just minutes instead of hours.

Picture of the experimental setup, complete with a FREE module, a single FREE, and the motion capture system.

Working on the motion capture system was fun. I was building something totally new and different from my usual work. No one ever asked me to build this system; I just thought it was a good idea. I started working harder and longer to complete my assigned work in addition to my self-imposed side project. At first, I thought I was breaking rank by spending a lot of my time on a project that I wasn’t asked to complete. But then I realized that dedicating time to inventing something new, while risky, can lead to better outcomes in the long run. Looking back, it was the best thing I could have done for myself and future experimenters. Taking smart and calculated risks are essential to innovating.

LM 2: Don’t be afraid of quaint rural America. Sure, it’s quiet. But its subdued nature allows you to learn about yourself and the world around you. It’s incredibly special.

Halfway through the summer, I realized just how much fun I was having, both at work and in my personal life. I had successfully mapped the workspace using nearly 200 points, and my results largely matched with the expected results from our finite element model. It was great news, and I received a decent amount of praise from my professor for my hard work. In my personal life, I was cooking more than ever before (one of my favorite things to do) and consistently finding time to converse with friends, often late into the night. Put simply, the summer was going well.

When July Fourth weekend came around, I got a small glimpse of the small town Americana  that is often portrayed in movies and on TV. There was a big parade down Market Street (the main road in Lewisburg) to honor those who have risked their life to serve our great country. And what I witnessed on Market Street was something much larger than Lewisburg itself. The festivities attracted hundreds of people from all over the region, all cheering and celebrating independence. 

Following the parade, evening activities included an impressive "Fireworks Extravaganza."

It was in these moments that I realized small towns are just as special as big cities. When I tell my high school friends about Lewisburg, it can often seem like they pity small towns, left behind and forgotten in the middle of Pennsylvania. A town of 6,000 people isn’t worth remembering compared to a place like New York City they tell me. But I think they’re wrong. Even in the summer when Bucknell isn’t in session, Lewisburg has the charm that makes me feel at home, known, and alive. You can learn a lot from spending the summer in a place like this. You won’t get bored, trust me.

LM 3: Active thinking isn’t always the best way to solve a problem. Great ideas can come from letting thoughts brew in our minds as we sleep, vacation, or watch TV.

Shortly after the Fourth of July, I took a week-long vacation and decided to go home. The break was largely uneventful, but it was time well spent with family and high school friends. Much to my surprise, the week had me thinking about my work and what I would do when I went back. I tried to exorcise these work-related ideas out of my mind, but I couldn’t help it. This was my vacation! Why was I concerned with what was going on in the lab? And even more surprising, why was I coming up with great ideas while I was miles from my desk? I was amazed that, while on vacation, I could churn through the difficult concepts previously stumping me. I wanted to take advantage of this phenomena when I got back to campus. How could I simulate this relaxing vacation on a daily basis? Would being in a tranquil state of mind more often lead me to better ideas?

Back on campus, I started a personal experiment. I built longer lunch breaks, dedicated reading time, and personal meetings into my schedule, often in the middle of the day. When I first started doing this, I felt guilty that I wasn’t spending as much time in the lab. Would those around me perceive me as lazy? Maybe. After all, who takes a 2 hour lunch break. But once I stopped caring what others thought about my work habits, I found that placing an emphasis on integrating life and work caused me to come up with better and more creative ideas. And when I had better ideas, I often stayed late or came back after dinner inspired to work. Relaxing more frequently made me want to work harder and longer. 

As a student during the semester, this integrated work-life model is normal for me. I go to class, eat lunch, meet with friends, go to another class, meet with a professor, do homework...all at seemingly random times throughout the day. College students are great at integrating work and play. And college students, by and large, are happy and productive. Why hadn’t I naturally adopted this mindset when I was working this summer? Maybe focusing on one project led me to develop a “get-in get-out mentality.” Work nine to five and get home. But this personal experiment taught me that that productivity is not defined by sitting at your desk working until you hate your job and life. It’s balancing work and life, interacting with others organically, and becoming inspired. Only once your mind is at ease should you work tirelessly to implement your newly found (and often much more creative) ideas. Corporate America could learn something from this.

LM 4: Research is most useful when it can be applied to a particular business, and business is best when delivering products created through thoughtful research.

Some of my friends describe me as “business-oriented.” I’m not sure exactly what that means, but it seems true. I love entrepreneurship, which some define as the process of taking a technical insight and delivering it to the masses. In some ways, research embodies that general theme. But in most ways, business and research stand in stark contrast to one another.

Consider this. Researchers work for hours on end to collect data on a phenomenon they have a gut inclination about. They want to prove the validity of their hypothesis using process and statistically significant data. They spend days collecting quantitative observations, devote weeks to writing the perfect paper, and wait months to see if their work is published. Compare that to the business world where bosses often promise things that are not yet true. Customers want these promises badly, but they don’t yet exist. It now becomes the job of the boss's employees to work tirelessly to make those promises come true, as fast as humanly possible. Why does research emphasize accuracy and business emphasize speed? What can we learn from this?

For starters, I believe there is validity to both processes. I’ve learned the importance of methodical research practices this summer. The emphasis on carefully measuring everything, tracking parameters until you’re certain they’re correct, and proving hypothesis three different ways (for us, it’s often through simulation, finite element analysis, and experimentally) provides extraordinary safeguards to the research process, ensuring published results are as true as possible. The business world is devised to generate revenue. Organizational leaders push employees to deliver a product that works mostly as intended as fast as possible. To beat your competition, speed is of the essence. 

I’ve been thinking more about how research can be better integrated into business. I believe the two processes can coexist in a way that strengthens the relationship between the inventive and the practical. It’s important that research be done quickly enough to shape the direction of business. Likewise, it’s important that businesses deliver products inspired by well-understood technical insights. Money can be made for those who marry research and business, focusing on how to address the world’s biggest challenges.

LM 5: Undergraduates can perform meaningful research.

University of Michigan Professor of Mechanical Engineering Brent Gillespie demos a fluidic valve prototype similar in behavior to an electrical MOSFET.

For one weekend during the summer, Professor Buffinton arranged for the team and I to travel to our partner research institution, University of Michigan. While we were there, we saw their incredible work in different fields from biomechanics to humanoid robotics to flexible actuators. They are a large research institution with hundreds of students at different degree levels working to find the next breakthrough. I felt a bit overwhelmed and intimidated by the sheer scale and depth to their research. PhD and Masters students filled the labs with years of collective experience, well beyond what any student at

Bucknell had. 

Yet, here we were. And we had good ideas on how to advance the research in our field. Actually, we had great ideas. There’s something special about a fresh perspective on a difficult subject, and that is exactly what undergraduate research aims to provide. We likely won’t be able to rival Michigan’s research. They use modeling techniques and engineering principles well over my head. But that is okay. They value our input, and in the process, we learn a lot from one another.

Undergraduate research often has a reputation for not being “real research.” And while I’m sure there are professors out there that shovel metononus busy-work onto their students (which, in my opinion hardly constitutes research), there are many great professors that involve burgeoning students on difficult and interesting projects. And that’s what makes a place like Bucknell special. These difficult and interesting projects are within reach for most students. And even better, professors actively seek out students for their labs– exactly the story linking me to Professor Buffinton.

I’m incredibly thankful for the many wonderful opportunities I had this summer. Working with Professor Keith Buffinton has been a highlight of my college experience thus far. His dedication and mentorship has shaped me into a better student and person. I’m also indebted to all the other research assistants who spent their summer in Dana 147 with me. Soheil Habibian for being the rock of our lab with his endless support and thoughtful insights, Joon Shin for his incredible determination on developing a Finite Model to corroborate our experimental findings, Devin Whalen for showing the world why soft-robots are worth exploring, and Raphael Debort for working tirelessly to manufacture our soft actuators and enabling all future research. I would be remiss if I didn’t thank the wonderful individuals who welcomed us with open arms during our visit to Michigan: Processor Brent Gillespie, Daniel Bruder, Audrey Sedal, Maximilian Howarth, and Margaret Kohler. Thank you for all that you do to support undergraduate research at Bucknell. And finally, a big thank you to our partners and friends at the Toyota Research Institute for funding soft robotics research and giving students the opportunity to partake in a world class technical challenge.


Infinite FREEdom: Understanding and Controlling Soft Robots

The following poster was submitted to the Susquehanna Valley Undergraduate Research Symposium held on Wednesday, August 31, 2019. The abstract is duplicated in text below.

Abstract of Summer Research

In contrast to rigid-body robots used in manufacturing and transportation, soft-robotic systems allow for automation in delicate environments where human safety is of concern. Within the field of soft-robotics, pneumatically-controlled Fiber Reinforced Elastomeric Enclosures (FREEs) have emerged as one possible solution to the lack of compliant actuators available commercially. FREEs produced from thin-walled latex tubes and helically wound cotton fibers exhibit elongation, rotation, expansion, and off-axis bending when pressurized. Decoupled, these motions are reasonably well understood. However, the dynamic response, which is crucial to understanding the coupling between certain motions, is largely unexplored.

Through experimentation and mathematical modeling, this project has focused on altering material properties such as length, thickness, mass, and winding angle to characterize the dynamic properties of a FREE. The natural frequency, log decrement, and damping ratio are crucial properties to the creation of a realistic model to explain the motion of a FREE as it performs motions within a workspace. These tests have largely shown that a FREE can be modeled as spring-mass-damper system with rotational natural frequencies inversely related to mass moment of inertia. 

Following the dynamic response research, a comprehensive mapping of the workspace has been performed using a custom two-camera imaging system that records the pressures required to reach various points in the workspace. Using vision and pressure data, a control system that allows for real-time user control via intuitive input, tracking with reduced vibration, and adjustment for variances in the physical characteristics of FREEs has been developed. Given the current state of manufacturing tolerances and the material degradation of FREEs over prolonged pressure excitation, having a robust control system is paramount to demonstrating the practicality of FREEs in commercial products. 

This research was performed in conjunction with Bucknell’s Compliant Materials and Robotics Systems Laboratory led by Dr. Keith Buffinton, Professor of Mechanical Engineering and the Robotic and Motion Laboratory at the University of Michigan. 

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