Running robots, from a distance

Some of the robots used in the AMR class of Hadas Kress-Gazit

When students in Associate Professor Hadas Kress-Gazit’s MAE 4180\5180 Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMR) class left campus in March due to the growing COVID-19 crisis, they had taken part in only two of the class’s usually-scheduled five labs. Thurston Hall, the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE), and all of Cornell were closed, but these final three labs were important.

The focus of AMR is creating robots that can carry out complex tasks autonomously. Students learn about robotic sensing, perception, control, and planning. Kress-Gazit knew immediately that for the class to be a success she would need to find a way to remotely conduct the final three labs of the class. “These labs are a central part of the class,” says Kress-Gazit.

Kress-Gazit knew where to turn with this challenge: to Liran Gazit, a teaching support specialist in the Sibley School. “I explained what we needed to Liran and he came quickly up with the whole set-up we ended up using,” says Kress-Gazit. Liran Gazit recently received the Academic Achievement Award from the Cornell Engineering Alumni Association (CEAA). The award recognizes non-tenure staff and lecturers who go well beyond their job duties for advising and teaching, and who enhance undergraduate education outside of the classroom. His quick response in this situation is clear evidence that the award is well-deserved.

“(Director of Instructional Labs) Matt Ulinski and (Sibley School Director) David Erickson were also very supportive and helped ensure we would have all the equipment and access we would need in order to make this work.”  

There were roughly 50 students in the class this semester, from the Computer Science Department (CS), the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE), and the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. The majority of the students are graduate students in M.Eng. and Ph.D. programs. “This is an elective, but it is a tough elective, even in a ‘normal’ semester.” say Kress-Gazit. “It was so important that we be able to offer these labs.”

Sarah Allen, Ph.D. student in the Sibley School and one of four Teaching Assistants for AMR, was thrilled to hear from Kress-Gazit that the final labs would be happening. “I took AMR last year and these labs were my favorite part of the class,” says Allen. “When Liran figured out how we could do this, it was really great news.”

Once classes started back up in their online iteration, Kress-Gazit and her T.A.s created a schedule for students to meet with them via Zoom and a second online platform called USE Together. They also obtained permission for Liran Gazit to enter the lab space in Thurston Hall to turn the systems and robots on, and to move the robot when needed.

And then the labs began.

The set up in the lab, as seen on a student's computer, along with the code being run.During these labs, students run a robot control algorithm on a simulator and collect data on its performance.  They then run the robot in the lab’s obstacle course, comparing its performance in the real world with its performance in the simulator. Kress-Gazit says that robots’ performance in the “real world” is often much sloppier than in the simulation. By comparing the ‘ideal’ world of the simulation with the real world of the lab, students learn very practical lessons about both the abilities and the limitations of autonomous robots.

“I was pleased with how quickly and how well we were able to make these labs happen,” says Kress-Gazit. “It was not ideal, but still it was very helpful. Despite setbacks, every group was able to run at least one algorithm and get direct feedback. And as a teacher, it opened up many new possibilities for how we might incorporate distance learning in the future.”

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