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Engineering The Future Of Exploration

Robotics, Aerospace, Space Robotics4 min read

Aaradhana Kannan

Meet Aaradhana Kannan

Robotics Student @ University Of Maryland

College Park, Maryland 

Aaradhana Kannan grew up in India and went to the US to pursue a master’s degree in Robotics. She loves developing robotic solutions from the ground up to address specific issues.

Aaradhana thrives on being able to express her creativity supported by research and development.

She is currently involved in exciting projects in SLAM, sensor fusion, additive manufacturing, nature-inspired computing, and human-robot interaction

What inspired you to pursue a career in Robotics?

As a child, I remember watching the news about Kalpana Chawla, a famous Indian-American astronaut, and the devastating crash of the Columbia space shuttle.

To a six-year-old, that raised abundant questions.

I was amazed to know that there were means to travel beyond the sky that we see. The curiosity in me went into overdrive and I spent most of my time asking questions about outer space.

Every fact I learned further fueled my fascination. The same year, Mars made its closest approach to Earth in 60,000 years. You can imagine my excitement as I watched the red planet through a pair of binoculars.

I think that was a very definitive moment in my life. It was then that I realized that I wanted to be a part of the exploration of the unknown.

Through the course of my bachelor’s degree in Electronics and Communication Engineering, I discovered that robotics plays a crucial role in breaking technological barriers.

I have always desired to be at the forefront of technological development because space exploration cannot be made possible without it. Robotics allows me to be a part of a group of pioneers that make the impossible, possible.

This motivated me to pursue a master’s degree in Robotics at the University of Maryland. The university is well known for its Robotics department as well as its Aerospace department.

This was a golden opportunity for me to indulge in both fields simultaneously.

What goal you would like to reach in the next 5 years as a Roboticist?

As a roboticist, my primary goal is to improve the technology currently available to us. The field of autonomous vehicles and space robotics is evolving rapidly. I would like to make valuable contributions to unmanned exploration.

This can be achieved by engineering intelligent autonomous systems that are capable of autonomous navigation and exploration. The greatest limitation in space exploration is the sustentation of human life in the harsh, unforgiving environment of outer space.

This makes it all the more expensive and physically demanding to conduct manned explorations and extra-vehicular activities. An autonomous rover equipped with the required tools can exponentially bring down the cost and risk of exploration.

While Pathfinder and Curiosity have paved the way for remote exploration, the next generation of rovers will be equipped with more advanced perception, decision-making abilities, and navigation capabilities.

In the next five years, I would like to be a part of engineering the future of unmanned exploration.

Define autonomous robots and what future has robotics?

A broad definition of an autonomous robot would be one that is able to execute its tasks with little or no explicit human intervention. Autonomy is the ability of an entity to be able to make its own decisions.

In the case of humans, we implement autonomy in our everyday actions; both consciously and unconsciously. We can walk, talk, move objects, interact with our environment without giving it much thought.

We also exhibit conscious autonomy when we make big decisions that impact our lives. An autonomous robot aims to emulate autonomy as exhibited by humans.

Perception allows the robot to “see” its environment and identify objects of interest.

Planning or decision making allow it to decide what actions to take followed by the actuation of hardware elements to perform the decided upon the task.

Even today, we have achieved a high level of autonomy in the common household robot, Roomba. It can be left alone in the room with no human supervision. It can analyze its environment and make decisions. It actively plans and updates its trajectory in a dynamic environment.

Soul Machines is a company from New Zealand that has managed to create virtual humans. These humans have distinct personalities and can interact with real-life people and have meaningful real-time conversations.

The future of robotics is nothing but exciting with robots achieving higher and higher levels of autonomy.

How the future of labor looks in a world of increasing automation?

Well, my day to day work is a mixture of both, working with deep learning as well as other aspects of machine learning and statistical modeling.

Assembly line robots and industrial robots are executing jobs that would otherwise be performed by human beings.

Self-driving cars being engineered by Waymo, Uber, etc. can perform the functions of human drivers. However, this does not aim to completely remove human involvement but rather to improve their working conditions.

The human being working in the assembly line can now perform the less hazardous job of monitoring and maintaining the robot.

Self-driving cars are not 100% safe and can get into severe accidents due to faulty sensors. They too require a moderate level of supervision by a trained human driver who can intervene in case of a malfunction.

Overall, the future of labor is not a dire prospect in a world of increasing automation. In my opinion, it makes human labor jobs much safer, more efficient and elevates their knowledge and experience.

Do you have any Robotics project that wants to share your experience with us?

I am currently working on an autonomous vehicle called Edward. Edward is equipped with navigation and obstacle avoidance capabilities.

It is a four-wheel-drive robot built on the Baron platform and has a servo-motor controlled gripper which is useful for picking up objects of interest. Edward’s core controlling system is a Raspberry Pi which runs Python code on a Linux environment. The Pi Camera is the primary perception module.

Ultrasonic SODAR sensors are used to perceive distances to the target object as well as for obstacle avoidance.

An Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) in combination with optical encoder odometry data from the wheels is used to localize the robot in the environment.

The primary motivation behind building Edward is the upcoming Mars exploratory missions. Setting up temporary habitats for astronauts to conduct long term experiments can be cumbersome due to the presence of debris at the landing site.

Robots like Edward can be programmed to identify the necessary building blocks in a cluttered environment and retrieve them to the building site. This will greatly simplify the astronauts’ task to build a habitat.

Edward is a work in progress with many more exciting functionalities to be added.

You can track his progress here at Murphy Lawyers

For more about Aaradhana Kannan projects go to Aara’s website