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Innovators at work and in the classroom

Robots Unlimited

An engineer reaches for Mars, the Arctic, and pediatrics.

Ayanna Howard’s “playmates” add fun to kids’ clinical sessions while speeding diagnoses.By Alison Buki

Science fiction often inspires children to dream of accomplishing great feats. Ayanna Howard is no exception. At age 11 she discovered the TV show Bionic Woman, in which a badly injured athlete is given artificial limbs that grant her superhero-like abilities. Howard “wanted to be the person that actually built the next Bionic Woman to go off and save the world,” she says. Wonder Woman, another role model, gave her the confidence to try.

Howard’s discovery that she preferred math to biology and chemistry threatened to stymie her plans to create bionic limbs, or so she imagined. But then a teacher explained that her best route to creating technologically advanced prosthetics was through engineering. In high school in Pasadena, Calif., her interest shifted to robotics, stoked by engineers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who visited the school. She got a summer internship at JPL and eventually – after graduating from Brown University and earning a Ph.D. at the University of Southern California – became an engineer there herself.

Her dozen years at JPL, where she led research teams to develop software to assess planetary terrain for safe landings and for Mars-roving robots, brought her many distinctions, including the 2001 Lew Allen Award, JPL’s highest honor for leadership and research. In 2003, MIT’s Technology Review named her one of the top innovators under 35.

When funding for NASA research diminished after the space shuttle Columbia crashed in 2003, Howard completed an M.B.A. at Claremont Graduate University and moved to the Georgia Institute of Technology to continue work in robotics. Now an associate professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, she has focused on teaching machines to efficiently survey our home planet: “We’re working on using robots to do science-based exploration: glacier environments, places you want to send robots to gain more understanding of Earth,” she says. Based on a snowmobile design and equipped with sensors, circuits, artificial intelligence technology, and a camera, these autonomous roving Sno-motes are intended to navigate Arctic regions too treacherous for human exploration. Data they collect on such weather conditions as wind speed and barometric pressure can help scientists develop more accurate models of melting Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, leading to a better grasp of the changing climate. Prototypes have been tested on the Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska and a frozen lake in Ohio.

Howard’s research into human-robotic interaction has steered her to develop robots to help diagnose and treat children with movement disabilities like cerebral palsy. Diagnosing cerebral palsy in children is a very labor-intensive process. When done manually, it involves many repetitive gestures from the patient that must then be precisely recorded by the clinician. Howard and her team are developing ways to automate the process by using robots to measure and analyze movement very accurately (including such variables as range of motion and steadiness), and to provide feedback and encouragement to the young patients, helping alleviate boredom and restlessness during the session. “Basically instead of it being a clinical session, it’s more of a play session with a clinical purpose,” Howard says of the new automated diagnosis method. While programming “robot playmates” to be able to adapt to the widely different developmental stages of children has proved challenging, she asserts that the project is particularly rewarding because of its novelty as a field of research. “We’re using robots for an application that many people haven’t tackled.”

Outside of her own research, which has been published in seven books and more than 70 articles, Howard, 40, serves as robotics Ph.D. program coordinator and teaches courses in robotics and software algorithms. She also has been involved in the Advancing Robotics Technology for Societal Impact (ARTSI) Alliance, aimed at boosting the number of African-American graduate students in computer science and robotics. Meanwhile, she has earned tributes for spreading enthusiasm about robotics and engineering through community outreach projects, speaking at schools and hosting robotics camps for middle and high school students.

“You make it work,” Howard says, shrugging off the time-management challenge with Wonder Woman aplomb: “Academia is almost like having three full-time jobs.”


Alison Buki is an ASEE staff writer.




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