Professor teaches mechanical devices how to ‘see’

February 10, 2010 By Jill Sakai

In her Robotics and Intelligent Systems Lab, Nicola Ferrier, associate professor of mechanical engineering, is helping design the next generation of robots. They may not look like the anthropomorphic machines depicted in the movies, but these mechanical arms and manipulators are learning how to “see.”

[photo] Ferrier.

Nicola Ferrier, associate professor of mechanical engineering, works with a robotic arm to play a game of Connect Four.

Photo: Bryce Richter

Working at the interface between robotics and computer-aided vision, Ferrier trains robots to extract the most important information from a visual scene with the goal of using images to control the devices. Her focus on computational image analysis has also led her into several projects on machine vision, with applications ranging from medicine to manufacturing, navigation and even traffic control.

Wisconsin Week: What about your field do you think surprises people the most?

Ferrier: Most people have a “Hollywood” perspective on robots and the reality is not yet on par with these dreams. I think people are often surprised (more likely disappointed) when they see the reality of my work on robot manipulators. Everyone envisions more “sexy” research — little mobile robots running around — instead of industrial manipulators.

Wisconsin Week: How did you first get interested in robotics?

Nicola Ferrier: I found robotics when I was looking for a research project that combined math, computer science and engineering. There was something exciting about working at a computer, solving mathematics and seeing a robot move as a result of my calculations and program.

Wisconsin Week: What’s the research question most on your mind right now?

Nicola Ferrier: It isn’t really a research question, but I spend a lot of time contemplating what is the bottleneck or hindrance that limits the application of much of robotics research. I keep asking, “What still needs to be done to take this work outside the lab?”

Wisconsin Week: What outcomes do you see from your work for society?

Nicola Ferrier: Images are everywhere now — for example, microscopes, electron tomograms, scanning electron microscopes, various medical imaging techniques, etc. — and their uses for scientific discovery, medical intervention, and more traditional robotic settings such as manufacturing will be huge.

Wisconsin Week: What inspires you in your work?

Nicola Ferrier: It is an adventure. I sometimes feel scientific and engineering research is the modern-day version of being an explorer.