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Swarnabha Roy
Swarnabha Roy | Image: Matthew Linguist, Texas A&M Engineering

Perhaps one of the most iconic modern science fiction characters is Optimus Prime – the leader of the extraterrestrial, self-configuring robotic beings called the Autobots from the "Transformers" series. Optimus Prime and the Autobots are modular robots able to transform themselves into different shapes, such as cars, planes and semi-trucks. Bridging cinema and reality, doctoral student Swarnabha Roy is studying the components of modular robots to ultimately create a connected intelligence that can help enhance the capabilities of the robots based on the application. Though these robots will not be fighting to save Earth from impending doom, the modular robots Roy is working with will have the capability to assist humankind by providing a safer work environment for industries such as manufacturing and surveillance, and providing products to general consumers at a lower cost and faster speed.

Modular robotics consists of small independent robots or components that, like the Autobots, can be reconfigured together to assume different shapes and functions.

“For example, a robot that can take the shape of a snake to crawl through a pipe or take the shape of a human,” Roy said. “It can even reassemble into something with spider-like legs to cross uneven terrain.”

While the modules in modular robotics can be independent, Roy’s research is mainly focused on areas that require the robots to work together and function in unison as one system. The modular aspect of the robots will greatly reduce the cost of their maintenance. For example, if a repair or additional power is needed for the robot, only the affected module would have to be serviced instead of the entire robot.

Roy is exploring the Cloud architecture for modular robotics and working to develop a heterogeneous system where the individual modules are not required to be identical in order to function properly. The modules are little bundles of software inside little bundles of hardware and, similar to parts of a computer, may be unique or identical.

Roy said the most challenging part of the project will be to determine the behavior of the robots if the communication between the modules is lost so that the entire system can be safe for human use.

He began this project in spring 2020 after searching for the perfect fit for his research project.

"I had a variety of experience as an undergraduate, but I always wanted to work on something related to robotics," Roy said. "I ventured into the field of robotics when I joined the embedded electronics team at the Indian Institute of Technology my freshman year, and from then on my interest in robotics kept on increasing."

Roy is pursuing his Ph.D. in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Texas A&M University and is working with his advisor, Dr. Stavros Kalafatis, who serves as associate department head and professor of practice in the department.

Kalafatis said that the idea of a modular robot architecture was developed over time as he observed that most of the robots today are application-specific, making them expensive and inflexible.

“Modularity will democratize robotic development by reducing price and enabling broader applications,” Kalafatis said. “I am very happy to have Swarnabha on our team, focusing on this major enabling technology for the future.”

Roy is excited to pursue a project that uses cutting-edge technology and also contribute to the breadth of work being done with the Internet of Things, which encompasses everything from smart appliances to the cellphone in your hand – essentially any technology that has the ability to connect to the internet.

“This project will require knowledge of a lot of specializations, namely embedded systems, computer networks, cloud computing, low-level programming and control theory. Hence, this project caters to my experiences and provides me with a lot of scope for further research,” Roy said.