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Professors Joshua Smith and Nadya Peek receive NSF award to develop open-source, customizable robotics for scientists and laboratory automation

December 10, 2020

Professors Smith and Peek

Robots have traditionally been deployed for dull, dirty or dangerous tasks. What if robots instead could be used to support the sophisticated and iterative work of domain experts such as chemical engineers or synthetic biologists?

A University of Washington research project led by Joshua Smith, professor at the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) and the UW Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering (UW ECE), and collaborator Nadya Peek, Human-Centered Design and Engineering (HCDE) professor and adjunct faculty member at CSE, “NRI: FND: Multi-Manipulator Extensible Robotic Platforms,” received a $700,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) National Robotics Initiative 2.0: Ubiquitous Collaborative Robots (NRI-2.0) program. This three-year grant will support Smith and Peek in the development of open-source, customizable co-bots, or a collaborative robots, to enable experts to develop their own automated processes and experiments.

“The tools we propose to develop include a family of open-source, replicable, extensible, parametrically-defined co-bots that will enable experts to iteratively develop automated processes and experiments,” Peek said. “This grant will help us develop hardware and software for authoring, running, and verifying automated workflows.”

Professors Smith and Peek believe that highly-skilled domain experts, such as chemical engineers and synthetic biologists, will be able to produce more in the limited time they have with the aid of a co-bot designed to work alongside a human. Robotic assistance could, for example, allow for automated sweeping of process variables, automated collection of results, and automated runs of additional iterations of an experiment.

A chemical engineer interested in exploring different chemical mixtures could use automation for data collection. Ubiquitous robots which can be easily customized and programmed would facilitate this.

A chemical engineer interested in exploring different chemical mixtures could use automation for data collection.
Ubiquitous robots which can be easily customized and programmed would facilitate this.

 

Smith’s lab has developed an ultrasonic manipulator that allows a robot to pick up small objects without touching them. The grant will specifically allow the researchers to combine Smith’s new ultrasonic manipulator with Peek’s open-source multi-tool motion platforms, including Jubilee.

“Non-contact manipulation can allow robots to pick up small objects and powders, which is currently challenging for robots,” Smith said. “Non-contact manipulation can also help maintain sterility, which could be useful in surgical settings, and any time we are concerned about spreading pathogens.”

The integrated robotic system will allow end-users to develop automated workflows for domain-specific tasks. The researchers are designing their system to be customizable and extensible. In particular, the robotic systems they develop are fabricatable, meaning that they can be made with easily sourced parts or parts made using low-cost digital fabrication tools such as 3D printers. This means that even when the domain experts create highly sophisticated interactive and automated workflows, their experimental setups can easily be reproduced by other scientists.

In addition to domains of scientific experimentation, the researchers envision widely deployed co-bots to be beneficial in other fields such as advanced fabrication and quality control.

The NRI 2.0 program aims to keep the U.S. at the cutting-edge of robotics technology. Read more about the program here, HCDE’s announcement here, CSE’s announcement here and the UW team’s NSF grant here.