MSU pushing robot development


In the basement of the Engineering Building is a series of doors, behind which lie robots that climb walls, detect breast cancer tumors and test protective clothing worn by soldiers.

Together, the separate rooms form one of the largest robotics research laboratories in Michigan and perhaps nationwide, said Ning Xi, a researcher and mechanical engineering professor. Researchers from MSU are internationally known for their accomplishments and contributions in the field, he said.

“There are applications from medicine to manufacturing to people’s daily lives to entertainment,” Xi said.

The eight or more faculty members involved are researching robotics with applications ranging from medical to manufacturing, said Satish Udpa, dean of MSU’s College of Engineering.

“Robotics have been an area of interest to us for a long, long time,” Udpa said. “It’s an important area that has had an impact on just about every discipline — we talk about medicine, talk about manufacturing, defense — whatever the area is, robotics play a very important role.”

At MSU, the research rooms contain robots shaped like fish and a robot similar in appearance to Elvis.

Advances in research allow humans to accomplish feats that otherwise might be impossible, said Xiaobo Tan, a researcher and electrical and computer engineering professor.

“They … relieve us humans from doing certain jobs that are repetitive, boring or dangerous,” said Tan, who was awarded a three-year, $410,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop the robotic fish.

“It’s not saying we are lazy, but if we can find better ways to do things that might otherwise be impossible — I think that’s the idea.”

Tan said the future of robotics could involve robots that can carry a conversation, behave like humans and raise humans. The future also could bring robots that communicate among themselves, he said.

“It’s not just about a single robot doing something,” Tan said. “With all these devices, everything is smart now — smart phones, smart cars. If all these things can talk to each other, hopefully they can coordinate things.”

Udpa said the importance of robotics research lies in enhancing productivity.

“Improving productivity is what keeps this nation humming in a sense,” Udpa said. “If you want the economy to grow, you’ve got to find smarter ways of doing things.”

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