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York College producing new generation of engineers through robotics study

February 06, 2017
Robotics Study

If you someday find yourself trapped in a building, it might be Cara Sperbeck’s work on a drone-mapping program that gets help to you in time.

And when drones’ flight capabilities are expanded farther and become even smarter to make our lives easier, Patrick Lynn might have something to do with that, too.

It’s all because of a recent independent study in robotics at York College of Pennsylvania’s Department of Engineering and Computer Science that had several top students working on advanced programming to control and manipulate robots, with an eye toward real-world problem-solving.

In the meantime, though, those students are thanking their professors for an opportunity they said came only because of York College’s small size, and the faculty’s unwavering attention to the interests of their students.

“They know all of us individually, and what each person wants to do,” said Patrick, a Computer Engineering major. “They knew I would love this opportunity, so I wanted to take it and see what it could become.”

Map to success

Making a map with a robot – navigating around a building to create a computerized floor plan – is a process filled with obstacles. Wheel-slips shift your map off-center. Individual mapped sections have to be stitched together. Batteries run out.

“I was trying to ask, ‘Is there a better way?’” Cara said.

So the York College junior flipped the problem on its head. She found that by creating the image file first and configuring it to the robot’s system, project time was cut dramatically.

That’s the sort of innovative thinking faculty advisors were looking for when they launched the independent study last year.

“A lot of this work is done at the graduate level, so this is pretty unique as undergraduate independent studies go,” said Dr. Jason Forsyth, one of the professors who oversaw the project. “Really, the idea was a result of knowing we had bright students who could do this kind of work and wanting to give them the chance.”

A glimpse of the future

When Patrick got the email from his professor about the independent study, he immediately said he was in.

His fall semester was spent implementing leader-follower programming into turtle bots: one moves forward, and so does the other; the leader backs up, and the follower does, too. It works by tagging and analyzing vectors.

The advanced programming involved has applications for everything from drone swarms to space exploration to prosthetics.

“In the end, it made me think I could move the field forward,” Patrick said, “and that maybe I could help people.”

It all starts here

The future of engineering can be found in Amazon’s next-generation warehouses, in Tesla’s smart cars and countless other employers looking to increase efficiency by upping their reliance on robotics and autonomous design.

That’s why York College’s independent study will grow in coming semesters.

“Many of the traditional jobs in manufacturing are going to be replaced by automation,” said Professor Drew Wilkerson, another faculty advisor. “To that end, we’re producing a new generation of engineers who will need to be able to design, fix and use these devices.”

It will take extraordinary minds. And it will start with a place they can call home.

Cara visited York College as a high school student, walking the halls wide-eyed. At one point a professor stopped to chat, taking the time to show her around and answer questions. That was when she knew York College was for her.

“I’ve never been in a big classroom in my life,” she said. “The atmosphere here just makes you feel at ease, and it makes you feel like you can accomplish whatever you put your mind to.”

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