UD students conduct research with robot boats for industry partner

For students interested in a career in the robotics industry, it is important to have something unique on their resumes to help them stand out from the thousands of students across the country who graduate with a specialization in robotics every year.

To help with this, the University of Delaware offers an interdisciplinary Master of Science in Robotics (MSR) program that allows their students to work in state-of-the-art facilities and research labs, while also giving them critical hands-on learning experiences with real-world robotics companies.

For four recent students — Owen Li, Andrew Wood, Yash Sharad Evalekar, and Varun Parindra Kadakia — enrolled in the MSR program that hands-on work took the form of a semester-long internship with Seafloor Systems Inc., where they worked to install a mission planning system on one of the company’s EchoBoats, an unmanned surface vessel used for hydrographic surveying.

Panagiotis Artemiadis, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and graduate program director for the MSR program, said that there is a great need for these kinds of programs that have their students specialize in the field of robotics and controls engineering. While there is a great need, there are only around 20 programs like this in the United States.

“The MSR program is an interdisciplinary program that gives you all you need in order to be successful in the robotics and controls field,” said Artemiadis. “Ten years ago, robotics was something that was taught within mechanical engineering departments, and then we realized with artificial intelligence and computer science, all the different fields involved should be exposed to the idea of robotics and control systems.”

This interdisciplinary nature allowed students from the program to spend their spring semester at UD’s Hugh R. Sharp Campus in Lewes working with Art Trembanis, professor in the School of Marine Science and Policy, in the Robotics Discovery Laboratories.

Trembanis was going to be utilizing one of Seafloor Systems’ EchoBoats over the summer for a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) project looking for shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, and he wanted to see if during the spring semester, they could implement some new software and hardware on the boat to help with his summer research.

Working with Trembanis and Marcos Barrera, lead robotics and AI research engineer with Seafloor Systems, the students helped to implement new software and hardware features on the robot boat.

This had the dual benefit of allowing the students to get a hands-on learning opportunity interacting with an industry professional, while also allowing Seafloor Systems to test out new technology on their product.

Barrera said that Seafloor Systems wanted to partner with UD and the MSR program to help drive innovation by bringing together a group of diverse minds and ideas.

“One of the reasons we work with research institutions like UD is because we want to advance hydrographic research and marine robotics through our technology,” said Barrera. “The UD Master of Robotics program and its affiliation with the Center for Autonomous and Robotic Systems (CARS) introduces our R&D (Research and Development) team to the challenges faced during field research and allows us to experiment alongside and ideally inspire future roboticists to bring their energy and ideas to solve these challenges.”

Trembanis echoed these thoughts, saying that the students got to learn on a weekly basis how robotics exists in the real world as opposed to working on robotics solely in a laboratory setting.

“These internships work really well because the industry, even if they are bigger companies, have limited internal research and development funds. They don’t want to spend money on something that doesn’t pan out,” said Trembanis. “We become a great opportunity for them to try something that might be high-risk, high-reward because even if it doesn’t pan out, we’re going to learn something.”

Trembanis added that it also becomes a long-term interview for the students about the companies and vice-versa.

Owen Li, one of the four MSR students who worked with Seafloor Systems in the spring and who received his computer science undergraduate degree at UD, said that it was a great experience because while he is interested in robotics, he hasn’t had the opportunity to work first-hand with a real-world robotics company.

“The Masters in Robotics program helped me a lot with the basic knowledge in robotics,” said Li. “I was a computer science major before, and coming into the program, I didn’t have too many experiences and knowledge with robotics.”

Li said that his favorite part of working on the project was learning more about the robot boats, which was something that he had never worked on prior to this experience.

“We were setting up the EchoBoat with a mission planner system, and at the end of the semester, all of the things worked successfully and we uploaded our code,” said Li. “When we took the boat out to the dock and tested it on the water, we were so excited every time we did that.”

Artemiadis said that he is anticipating having around 30 students in the program this fall — nearly tripling the program in size from the nine students they had in the spring — and is hoping to continue to offer these unique, semester-long industry internships for students in the program.

“Giving the students the ability to actually work for a company for a semester is unique because it gives them the experience of what industry really wants, and it teaches them what they need to learn and where they really need to focus,” said Artemiadis. “I think this is one of the unique opportunities we offer: to do the internship and then get an offer from a company or just put in your resume that you worked 6 months or a year with this company is great.”

 | Photo courtesy of Panagiotis Artemiadis |