Interview with the founding director of the Maryland Robotic Center.
By Raif Karerat
WASHINGTON, DC: Dr. Satyandra K. Gupta is a Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and the Institute for Systems Research at the University of Maryland, and was the founding director of the Maryland Robotics Center.
Dr. Gupta’s current research focuses on improving computer aided design, manufacturing automation, and robotics.
To that end, he has been working on several projects at his lab in College Park, Md., the most promising of which is called the Robo Raven.
Having always been fascinated by birds, Dr. Gupta set out a robotic specimen with individually controlled wing-mechanics that would allow it to perform incredible feats of aerobatics.
The Robo Raven technology could have practical applications across a variety of environments and scenarios, including search and rescue.
Dr. Gupta spoke with The American Bazaar over the phone and delved into his cutting-edge work, the state of affairs regarding STEM in the U.S, whether artificial intelligence has the capacity to usurp mankind, and much more.
What are the goals of the Robo Raven research?
Robo Raven research is directed at understanding how flapping-wing flight works and what kind of capabilities you can glean by using this type of flight modality. The other two flight modalities are fixed-wing flight, which are your regular airplanes, and rotorcraft flight, which are your helicopters. In nature you see a lot of flapping wing flight. You’ve got birds, bats, insects, all of them fly by flapping their wings. Our goal with Robo Raven is to understand flapping flight works and what you can do with it. Birds are capable of incredible aerobatics, the question is how can you harness the aerobatics of flapping-wing flight. We actually largely looked at birds for our inspiration.
What are the practical applications going to be?
The typical application would be when you need a flying platform to survey or monitor an area. There would be agricultural applications in a monitoring context; certain parties have already expressed interest in that. Also, there are search and rescue applications.
Besides the maneuverability provided by flapping-wing mechanics, are there any other advantages as opposed to fixed-wing or rotary setups?
Fixed-wing flight as with an airplane is very good in terms of efficiency. It give you high powered velocity, however, it’s not very maneuverable. If you need to fly at a low altitude there’s going to be lots of trees and buildings and it doesn’t give you maneuverability. On the other hand, if you look at rotorcraft flight gives you a lot of maneuverability but it’s not as efficient as fixed-wing flight is. Rotorcraft flight is also very noisy — helicopters particularly make a lot of noise.
When you look at birds, birds are very quiet, because they’re flapping their wings at 4 to 5 Hertz, so if a bird is flying nearby you can’t really hear it. But birds are very maneuverable and they can negotiate pretty tight areas.
Another benefit you can get out of a design based on birds is a large wing-area you can put solar cells on to harvest energy. That means you wouldn’t have to use fuel to fly. Doing that from a rotorcraft is not possible because if you start putting up large solar cells to harness solar energy that starts interfering with the airflow of the aircraft.
The Robo Raven is built on a smaller scale that imitates the proportions of a bird. Is this technology viable on a larger scale?
Flapping-wing flight is not very efficient beyond about a meter to a meter-and-and-a-half span of wings.
So we’re talking about developing smaller drones as opposed to human-carrying vehicles?
What inspired you to enter the field of robotics?
When I was a graduate student, computers were becoming popular. This would be about ’88. A lot of people were interested in using computers in manufacturing to automate things in manufacturing. One of the major technologies in manufacturing at the time was robotics. We wanted to integrate computes and robots into manufacturing to make it automated, make quality more consistent, and reduce cost. That’s how I got into the field of manufacturing and robotics.
Regarding manufacturing, should America’s current flesh and blood workforce be worried about being replaced by robots?
The way things work with the introduction of new technologies is that certain types of jobs go away and certain types of jobs are created. In the U.S., what has been happening is that because of the wage rates manufacturing jobs have been going to low-wage countries. If we can use robots to keep quality high and reduce the wage level, then manufacturing can happen in the U.S. So if manufacturing is happening in the U.S. with advanced technologies, even though some of the low end jobs are not going to be done by humans, it will also create a lot of newer, high-paying jobs in the U.S.
On the flip side, if all the manufacturing goes overseas, that doesn’t benefit the U.S. in any way.
What is your assessment of the STEM fields in the United States, especially in the context of education?
In terms of education — the people who are in the STEM fields getting degrees in engineering and science — the U.S. education system is excellent and it’s doing a great job in terms of creating leaders, innovators, and entrepreneurs, so we’re doing a great job in terms of educating people who are interested in STEM fields.
The challenge seems to be that there aren’t enough people in the U.S. who are want to pursue STEM after high school. The question is, how can we get more people interested in STEM and that’s the challenge the U.S. is facing, and we need to figure out how to address that challenge.
The Robo Raven relies on solar power. Do you believe technology that harnesses the power of the sun is key to sustainability?
Solar power will definitely play a major role in maintaining sustainability. It won’t be the only solution, but it will be a key ingredient of providing sustainability solutions.
Several scientific luminaries, including Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, have spoken about the perceived dangers of artificial intelligence. Musk even went so far as to say it was akin to “summoning the demon.” What are your thoughts on the emerging technology?
I don’t think we’re even remotely close to A.I. which can in any way pose a threat to humans. I’m not concerned with that aspect of A.I. in the short-term — let’s say, 20 years.
What are your plans for the future? Do you have any other projects on the table?
I’ve got several different projects in the lab. Robo Raven is one of them, and we’ll continue advancing Robo Raven technology, certainly, and we want to make Robo Raven a much more capable platform.
We’re working on a project called RoboSAM, where we’re looking at developing robotics that can be used in small batch manufacturing, which robots have not traditionally been used in.
We’re also looking at developing robotic boats that would work autonomously in water and could provide search, rescue, and recovery logistical and supply capabilities.
Do you have any advice for students or aspiring engineers who want to enter the field of robotics?
Robotics is basically a multidisciplinary field. it requires elements of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and computer science. There’s a lot of hands-on activity as well. Students need to be sure that they take enough math courses, that they play enough with programming, and that they’re comfortable building things. That will get them ready to participate in challenging robotics projects.