About an year ago, I got lucky enough to attend ICRA 2016 at Stockholm for the HRATC robot competition. I was so much inspired after seeing all the research being published there. I decided pursue a research project, and try to publish a paper in the subsequent conference. The fact that ICRA 2017 is organized in Singapore was also another major factor. It is close to India and I need not spend a fortune on the travel and accommodation expenses..
Ever since I was rejected from a couple of Ph.D programs, mainly due to lack of research experience, I have been making plans and trying to do research on my own and write a couple of papers. But nothing moved past making elaborate plans and maybe a little literature study for all the research ideas I had. The stresses of working in a startup consume so much of your mental strength as well as time. Thus I failed in materializing all my research Ideas. My research ideas are interdisciplinary and spans over computer vision for robotics, novel actuators for robots, robotic manipulators and motion planning to name a few.
My constraints were:
Now I had to read through all of them, make notes and think how to build upon that. Finding time to read all these was the first problem I faced. I cannot sit and read the entire day. I started using Mendeley app on PC and my smartphone to organize the papers and make notes. Having all the papers in my smartphone helped to make use of every bit of time otherwise spent useless. I read during my daily commute to and from work, during meals, when I am travelling outside etc
It was very difficult to indulge in studies and research during this time. I was travelling for client demos of the startup and staying at different places- with friends, relatives, in hotels etc. Moreover, I would be often exhausted after the day’s toil, that even the possibility of staying up late reading was not imaginable. Still, I managed to read quite a bit by making best usage of time and not wasting any. Often I would end up sleeping reading some papers on my smartphone or in front of the open laptop.
Even though finding time to read was difficult, there was enough and more time to think. I could think while waiting in traffic blocks, while driving, during meals, and even during boring and useless meetings. My thoughts wandered around various problems associated with direct drive mechanisms and technologies, how animal muscles work and limbs move, tactile and vision feedback, power consumption for these drives etc to name a few..
There were over a thousand papers in my reading list. I skimmed through most of them, stopping and reading only those portions I could understand or was interested in. I came across the paper titled " Design and Development of a Hybrid Magneto-Rheological Clutch for Safe Robotic Applications" by Masoud Moghani and Mehrdad R. Kermani. It captured my attention and I began to study more about Magneto-Rheological fluids and their application in human safe robotics. I found out a couple more papers by the same authors on the fundamentals of MR devices.
Once I was back at home, I began to delve deep into MR Fluids and their characterization. More reading, more searching. I came up with an idea to make use of the properties of MR Fluid to make a Linear clutch - a clutch which controls force transmitted from input to output through MR fluid.
MR fluids are expensive and the lead-time will be a couple of weeks. Since I cannot afford both, I resorted to making my own MR fluid. I filed a piece of iron to the fine powdered form and used vegetable oil as the medium to make my own MR fluid for the prototype. Here is a small video with the MR fluid
Before starting on the construction, I verified that my concept works in simulation. The following figures show the CAD model, rendered image and the FEM analysis
After that I started working on building the MR clutch. Following photos shows some random shots during the build process.
Now I have to procure a couple of items which includes linear shaft bearings, aluminum rods etc. Once all the parts are procured, the clutch was assembled and the cavity inside was filled with MR Fluid. Then it had to be tested and characteristics were studied
In order to demonstrate the usefulness and study more about the MR linear clutch, a single degree of freedom robot joint was designed and fabricated. It used the standard 30x30 Aluminum profiles. The arm was driven by a Firgelli linear actuator.
More experiments are done with the arm to validate the functionality of MR Linear clutch. The following figure shows the performance characteristics.
Experiments are completed and data collected. Now I have to write the paper. Since I didn’t have any previous experience writing an academic paper, it took some time. I read a couple of articles online and referred IEEE guides and instructions. Instead of starting with the abstract and introduction, I started directly with the content- the things I did and the results obtained. Once it was done, I had to refer more literature to write the introductory pages. Luckily, due to the local festival of Onam, I got holidays for a couple of days and could work on the paper full time. Even then, I could felt the time running out fast. I had to plot the graphs, make diagrams and pictures and it took a lot more time than expected. I worked on the paper for about 4days clocking about 20 hours of work daily. Just a couple of hours before the deadline, I completed the final proofreading and submitted the paper. I was so exhausted after this that I literally slept an entire day after this.
The final version of the paper is available here
No words could describe the joy and happiness I had when I got the decision in January 2017. My very first paper was accepted. I began preparing for attending the conference.
Later, I travelled to Singapore to attend ICRA 2017, where I presented my paper.
In addition, I got to meet numerous researchers and even get an a copy of Handbook of Robotics signed by Dr. Oussama Khatib
It was an awesome experience. I pushed myself to the limits, learned a lot of things.
When I started working on the research project, the only thing that mattered to me was doing such an awesome work so that it is accepted at a top conference like ICRA. But as I finished the paper, I realized that it doesn’t matter much whether the paper is accepted or rejected. The only thing that matters is how much impactful is your work and how much satisfied you are.
Along the course of working on the paper, I learned much beyond the robotics stuff. The main ones being
Having a smartphone always with me was the greatest tool that I used to make best use of time. It was loaded with plenty of books and papers. I had Mendeley on my phone to keep track of all the papers that I am reading. I could read on the phone irrespective of where I am - while traveling in a crowded bus, when having meals, when having a haircut at the salon, when stuck in a traffic jam, while waiting for someone, when in a queue or even when I am in the toilet seat. These are the bits of time wasted by not being productive. Somehow I managed to squeeze out every bit of time wasted and use it for productive things.