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Professors Joshua Smith and Nadya Peek receive NSF award for open source hardware co-bots for laboratory automation

Smith and Peek

Robots have traditionally been deployed for dull, dirty or dangerous tasks. What if robots instead could be used to support the sophisticated and iterative work of domain experts such as chemical engineers or synthetic biologists? 

A University of Washington research project led by Allen School adjunct faculty member and Human-Centered Design and Engineering professor Nadya Peek and Allen School and Electrical and Computer Engineering professor Josh Smith, “NRI: FND: Multi-Manipulator Extensible Robotic Platforms,” received a $700,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) National Robotics Initiative 2.0: Ubiquitous Collaborative Robots (NRI-2.0) program.

“The tools we propose to develop include a family of open-source, replicable, extensible, parametrically-defined co-bots that will enable experts to iteratively develop automated processes and experiments,” Peek said. “This grant will help us develop hardware and software for authoring, running, and verifying automated workflows.”

Smith’s lab has developed an ultrasonic manipulator that allows a robot to pick up small objects without touching them. The grant will allow the researchers to combine this new ultrasonic manipulator with Peek’s open source multi-tool motion platforms, including Jubilee

“Non-contact manipulation can allow robots to pick up small objects and powders, which is currently challenging for robots,” Smith said. “Non-contact manipulation can also help maintain sterility, which could be useful in surgical settings, and any time we are concerned about spreading pathogens.”

The integrated robotic system will allow end-users to develop automated workflows for domain specific tasks. The researchers are designing their system to be customizable and extensible. In particular, the robotic systems they develop are fabricatable, meaning that they can be made with easily sourced parts or parts made using low cost digital fabrication tools such as 3D printers. This means that even when the domain experts create highly sophisticated interactive and automated workflows, their experimental setups can easily be reproduced by other scientists.

The NRI 2.0 program aims to keep the U.S. at the cutting-edge of robotics technology. Read more about the program here, HCDE’s announcement here and the UW team’s NSF grant here.

Congratulations, Josh and Nadya!