Kaiyu Hang wins NSF CAREER Award

Hang’s research will enable robots to manipulate unfamiliar objects in high-uncertainty situations.

AsianScientist (Aug. 02, 2023) – Kaiyu Hang, a computer scientist, has won a National Science Foundation CAREER Award to develop robots that can manipulate unfamiliar objects in high-uncertainty situations. Hang is an assistant professor at Rice University in Houstan, Texas.

The grants are awarded each year to a selective cohort of about 500 early career researchers across all disciplines engaged in pathbreaking research and committed to growing their field through outreach and education.

Hang’s project aims to develop general-purpose robots that can handle complex physical interactions in real-world settings without requiring perfect input from sensors or extensive instructions.

“My research is focused on robot manipulation,” Hang said. “And when we talk about robot manipulation, we’re referring to physically using the robot to change the configuration of the world. Say you want to pick up an object from a densely cluttered space (like picking up a book off of a shelf, for instance) and then stably place it somewhere else ⎯ that’s one of the manipulation tasks we’re interested in.”

Making robots more dexterous in real time ⎯ i.e. better at manipulating unfamiliar objects and navigating complex, real-world situations and environments ⎯ requires improving their computational ability to carry out finely-tuned, fine-grained actions that are context-specific and self-correcting.

“Imagine having a robot that can clean surfaces in the home or in a hospital setting that is able to decide what cleaning motion or force to apply, depending on the type of object or area it encounters,” Hang said. “Instead of designing specific robots for specific tasks ⎯ which works well in an industrial setting where you actually have control over the working environment ⎯ I hope to develop robots that can perform daily tasks in new or unfamiliar environments that are constantly changing.”

Hang wants to design robots that can engage in a given task in an open-ended way that allows them to glean information about the environment in which they are acting ⎯ and acting upon ⎯ to improve their performance.

“You can think of this in terms of pouring some liquid into a bottle with a very narrow neck,” Hang said. “Even if you have steady hands to hold both containers and the flow of liquid is aimed right, you’ll probably end up spilling some due to fluid uncertainties. However, if you use a funnel, you can pour the liquid without worrying about spilling. What I’d like to do is reconfigure robotic manipulation tasks to essentially funnel action toward the desired goal in ways that minimize the likelihood of error.”

Like all CAREER Awards, Hang’s project includes an educational and outreach component.

“This approach to robot manipulation is actually very new, and I want Rice students to learn and work on things that are happening at the frontier of the discipline,” Hang said. “I will plan to develop new courses that can teach students not only the theory but also provide hands on robot manipulation skills. I will also continue to provide research opportunities for students in my lab.”

Hang will leverage his role as faculty advisor for the Rice Robotics Club to provide learning and research opportunities for students from diverse educational backgrounds. He also plans to work with pre-college level students from underserved communities.

“This is the right time to take on this project,” Hang said. “If we’d wanted to do this five or 10 years ago, we wouldn’t have been able to.”


Source: Rice University ; Image: Yipei Lieu/ Asian Scientist Magazine

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