Four New Female Fellows Make Their Mark on Robotics

Robots that walk, talk, and fly—and the engineers who help bring them to life

27 July 2011

Of 321 IEEE members elevated to the rank of Fellow this year, 29 were female—the most women in one year.

The IEEE grade of Fellow is conferred by the Board of Directors upon a person with an extraordinary record of accomplishments in any of the IEEE fields of interest. The following four female Fellows from the class of 2011 have made an extraordinary impact in robotics.

AO Photo: Jay Van Rensselaer/Johns Hopkins University

That a surgeon can sit at a computer screen and use finger controls to direct robotic surgical tools operating on a patient might sound amazing. It would be even more amazing if that surgeon could feel each and every tug as a needle stitches up an incision.

Allison Okamura, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and acting associate professor at Stanford University, is working on making that haptic sense a reality. A leading researcher in human-machine interfaces, Okamura was elevated to Fellow for “contributions to the design and control of haptic systems and medical robotics.”

She has been working on teleoperated surgical robots, such as the da Vinci Surgical System, to add feedback mechanisms that enable doctors to sense what the robotic tools “feel” inside the body. Developed and first introduced in 1999 by Intuitive Surgical Inc. in Sunnyvale, Calif., da Vinci robots are used for minimally invasive colorectal, gynecological, and urological surgeries.

Okamura’s new feedback mechanism would give doctors the dexterity they often lose when controlling robotic arms. For example, the surgeon would feel a pop when a needle pokes through tissue, or feel more of a tug if the robotic tool is pulling too hard on the thread as it ties a suture.

Prostatectomy—removal of all or part of the prostate gland, usually because of cancer—is by far the most common surgery performed with the robot, says Okamura. “As an engineer, working with clinicians and patients who can benefit from the tools we develop is extremely rewarding.”

MM Photo: Phil Channing

Maja Mataric’s Bandit resembles a friendly humanoid robot from a futuristic children’s cartoon. Its expressive metallic eyebrows and smiling face atop its humanlike shoulders, arms and torso make it a hit with children and adults alike. The robot, which can speak as its jointed arms guide patients through repetitive exercises that otherwise would require the presence of a human physical therapist, is one of Mataric’s socially assistive robots.

Mataric and her team are testing the robot by having it interact with children with autism, people in need of physical rehabilitation, and other potential end users. These robots can track and imitate the movements of a person it is interacting with, and might soon be used to rehabilitate stroke victims, or help children with autism build social skills.

“The robot can show a child how to point, where to look, and what to do during a social interaction. A child with autism is often more likely to imitate and engage in learning activities with a robot than with another person. This can serve as a catalyst for making the child more inclined to socialize with other people,” she says.

Mataric, a professor in the computer science, neuroscience, and pediatrics departments at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, developed Bandit and similar robots with students at the university’s Center for Robotics and Embedded Systems. She was elected a Fellow for her “contributions to robot coordination and learning in human-robot systems.”

“My students and I find [developing socially assistive robots] to be a wonderfully challenging and motivating research area, and we hope to do some really helpful work,” she says. “My goal is to see my robots in people's homes, making their lives better.”

MV Photo: Carnegie Mellon University

Manuela M. Veloso, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, is working with students to build robots that interact with humans as well as each other. She was named Fellow for “contributions to the development of cognition, perception, and action in autonomous robot teams.”

It isn’t all work and no play for Veloso’s robots. She and her students have programmed a team of Sony Aibo quadruped robots to compete in robot soccer tournaments around the world. In 2002, her team of Sony robots took first place in RoboCup, an annual event that promotes robotics research and artificial intelligence.

She is also working on CoBots—autonomous robots that are built out of tablet computers secured on rolling pedestals equipped with sensors that enable the robots to move around buildings and avoid obstacles. With GPS and speech capabilities, the robots might be used to give tours of buildings, deliver supplies from one room to another, and escort people around hospitals, among other tasks.

CT Photo: University of California at Berkel

Claire Tomlin’s autonomous machines do not walk, speak, or play soccer. Instead, they fly. Her quadrotor helicopter uses sensors to avoid other planes and obstacles. Her goal is to develop technology that can help aircraft avoid collisions and maneuver and land with greater safety in heavy air traffic. She was named Fellow for “contributions to hybrid control systems with applications to air traffic management, unmanned aerial vehicles, and systems biology.”

Tomlin is a professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences at the University of California at Berkeley and a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University. NASA, Boeing, and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration have funded her projects, which include the small, autonomous unmanned helicopter that is lifted by four rotors and can do such things as follow programmed flight paths and perform backflips and other stunts.


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