Twists and Turns

Twists and Turns

Robotics Professor Howie Choset, David Rollinson

Twists and Turns

David Rollinson

David Rollinson (E'06, CS'10, '14) is pushing the boundaries of what is practical and possible for search and rescue crews.

Working alongside his adviser, Robotics Professor Howie Choset, he wants to get robots into confined spaces. Carnegie Mellon University has provided him with the skills to help make this happen.

He discussed the kinds of disasters that weigh on his and Choset's minds, for example, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the 2011 tsunami in Japan and the 2013 factory collapse in Bangladesh.

"In all of these situations people were trapped below ground, sometimes just feet down but days away from being discovered by rescuers," Rollinson said during a compelling talk he gave recently that won him CMU's inaugural 3-Minute Thesis competition.

Building robots to fit into tight nooks is a small part of the work. The difficulty lies in controlling the dozens of joints in the long, slender machines.

"Part of my research has worked to enable these wavelike undulations to adapt automatically to the robot's environment," Rollinson said. "Now as we move through a pipe, we can push out automatically against the walls for traction and handle the details for negotiating a junction or bend while the operator focuses on steering the head."

The applications of his snake robotics work may help with responding to disasters by accessing confined spaces, delivering sensors and aid. To understand the challenges faced in the field, Rollinson and Choset visited a disaster training site in Texas and put their tools in the hands of rescuers.

"Working in the field is a very powerful education of a different sort in seeing how people actually use your robot," Rollinson said. "You have to learn to make things that people are comfortable using and that will hold up to rigorous use."

Rollinson knows about this firsthand. As an engineering undergraduate, he interned at RedZone Robotics, a CMU spinoff that specializes in wastewater management and uses robots to inspect sewer systems. The internship led to a full-time position at the company as a mechanical design engineer.

Three years later, he found himself at a crossroads.

"The knowledge I had was all design related, and I had been pushed to the limits of that knowledge," Rollinson said. "I was seeing a set of challenges that I believed I could solve if I only knew more about sensing systems, more about robotic planning, more about controls — things that are more traditionally computer science."

Rollinson returned to CMU for graduate school, taking his passion for using robots in piping systems to Choset, who has a passion for search and rescue.

"Howie was very interested in finding commonalities between the two," Rollinson said. "Robotics problems tend to get easier with structure, like the walls of a pipe. Take that structure away, as in the kind of unstructured and unpredictable pathways through earthquake rubble, and you've got a very interesting problem."

Choset said Rollinson oozes with intuition and has a strong work ethic.

"He is a wonderful person and an excellent student whom I feel epitomizes the values we have at Carnegie Mellon — creativity, collaboration and hard work," Choset said.

Related Links: School of Computer Science | College of Engineering | Robotics Institute

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