Harold Stern, director of the Ingram School of Engineering, is often terrified when Heping Chen’s $100,000 hunk of steel roams the halls of Roy F. Mitte’s fifth floor.
Chen, assistant professor at the Ingram School of Engineering, has worked with robotics for more than 15 years. He spends approximately 20 hours each week researching and assembling them. With the help of Hongtai Cheng, postdoctoral research associate from China, Chen has manufactured one semi-automotive and two stationary robots. All three robots are designed to make tasks easier.
“Robots can release people from some tedious, dangerous or hazardous work,” Chen said.
Chen’s stationary production line robot is used for high precision manufacturing and is funded by ABB, an industry based out of North Carolina. The robot can put together an automatic transmission with help from a controller device. Chen said the robot costs $35,000.
The other stationary robot is primarily used by computer manufacturers and was sponsored by Austin-based Lam Research Corp. The $100,000 device is primarily used for retrieving and moving wafers and computer chips. Chen said the silver machine takes up approximately 3 feet of space in the corner of his research office.
The $100,000 moveable robot, funded by ABB, is semi-automatic. It can be directed by an Xbox controller or from a remote location using a camera. The robot sits on a four-wheeled moveable platform that uses a Kinect sensor to move.
Chen said the moveable robot is the first one he worked on at Texas State and is a fairly new concept. Chen’s robot is designed to perform dangerous or repetitive tasks that are ill-suited for workers.
“An operator (from a remote location) can use the camera to inspect a dangerous environment or repair things,” Chen said.
Chen said the moveable machine can teach stationary robots how to perform tasks.
“On the manufacturing floor, there are hundreds of fixed robots, and if something happens it’s hard and time-consuming for the operator to go through all of them,” Chen said. “So, in this case, we can use a robot. The (moveable) robot can teach the (stationary) robot, and it increases efficiency.”
Chen said research for the moveable robot is already completed. However, he and Cheng are conducting their own studies to make it more intelligent and move on its own.
“Think of it like this: it’s just a child,” Cheng said. “It’s going to get taller and taller and will get more intelligent.”
Stern said robotics has been part of the engineering program since 2000. He said the manufacturing program, which includes robotics, has 120 students. The program is large for such a specialized department.
Stern said Chen is an innovative teacher with a multi-disciplinary background, including electrical and computer engineering. Chen’s background helps students learn about industry.
“It is really great work that has overlapped on several different missions,” Stern said. “It’s his research and his teaching, and it’s helping Central Texas.”
Chen said he is in negotiation with an agency for funding of an underwater robot. Chen is planning to incorporate moveable components into the underwater robot. He is working on an aviation robot to assist in dangerous situations.
“The thing about robotics is that everybody understands a little bit,” Stern said. “What (Chen) has that other professors might not is that his work is more visible, and students have more experience seeing and understanding it.”