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September 30, 2021

National Science Foundation grant helps build robot system linking research across campus

Posted in: Home page News, Research, Science and Technology

The MCROS team (from left to right): Michelle Zhu (co-principal investigator), Amy Tuininga (co-PI) and Weitian Wang (principal investigator).

Montclair State University’s research, ranging from linguistics and psychology to biology and mathematics, earth sciences, chemistry, business analysis and more, will be connected via a robot system being built with the help of a three-year grant of $ 289,737 from the National Science Foundation.

Weitian Wang, director of the university’s Collaborative Robotics and Intelligent Systems Lab, is a principal investigator (PI) on the grant and works with co-PI Michelle Zhu, professor and associate chair of the computer science department, and co-PI -PI Amy Tuininga, director of the PSEG Institute for Sustainability Studies.

On paper, the impressive robot system can seem daunting: “a collaborative multimodal robot system”, or MCROS, which “will advance a wide range of ongoing research projects sponsored by various agencies / organizations and foster multiple opportunities. potential funding spread across four colleges. [College of Science and Mathematics, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Education and Human Services and the Feliciano School of Business] and 12 academic units ”covering“ five targeted areas: (1) intelligent systems and advanced computing, (2) ecological and chemical sciences, (3) intelligent urban agriculture and food sciences, (4) human factors engineering and social sciences, and (5) interactive learning.

But the researchers say the robotic system will also be somewhat … adorable.

The robots in the system will be short and stocky, but nimble and will run on omnidirectional wheels. Their appendages will be interchangeable. The sensors will make them smart and able to learn.

The robot system will call the Center for Computing and Information Science, where Wang says “other researchers may come and use the MCROS for indoor robot experiments.” Zhu explains that the robot system can also “be deployed in the field, in nature. So it can help researchers do dangerous things. “

“He’ll be able to do everything from teaching a foreign language to sampling the plants to see if they’re ready to harvest,” says Tuininga. In fact, the robot system will soon start working with a vertical farm in Hackensack once more parts are purchased.

Tuininga explains: “Our vertical agricultural partners are joining forces with a program for adults with autism. We can use the language development component to work with people with disabilities at the same time as plant detection. Since it’s collaborative, scientists and autistic adults and the robot all learn from each other.

In addition, the robot system will aim to open up the STEM field to more students, especially female students and under-represented minorities, with tangible and engaging hands-on projects in robot-assisted education courses and programs.

In addition to connecting multiple disciplines within the University, the system will ultimately connect the University nationally to academics, helping Montclair researchers launch robotics workshops with the cutting edge robotics knowledge and activities for local K-12 students, especially those from underserved districts, contributing to the development and diversity of the future high-tech workforce for New Jersey and the country.

But before the robot makes its global debut next April or May, there’s a lot of work to be done.

“Before teaching MCROS, it’s just a machine,” says Wang. “The MCROS will learn from human demonstrations to become smarter, just like a student will learn from teachers. “

Zhu adds, “Anyone can buy the hardware, but we also make the robot intelligent by developing different artificial intelligence software. With the software, the robot will be adapted to each different area, to each different problem.

Tuininga says the project “shares IT expertise with the whole university.”

“This is the start. It is a gateway to many new collaborative possibilities on campus and off campus for human and technological interaction.

“Another characteristic is the uniqueness of our university,” says Wang. “We will have a lot of applications in all subjects, from several colleges, several departments. The unique feature of our robot system is collaboration.

Story from editor Mary Barr Mann. Photo by college photographer Mike Peters.

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