This Teacher Really Does Drone On -- In Robotics Lab
A piece of a conference poster board on the bulletin board in the IRAM lab is torn - the result of a bump from a drone flown by a student nicking it. The drone itself is protected from such student mishaps by a curved fender made from pool noodle styrofoam.
The IRAM - Industrial Robotics and Automated Manufacturing - laboratory ¬at Morgan State has not only drones but also mobile robots, an industrial robot, a conveyer and two machining centers.
"I teach students how to use all of them," says Dr. Richard Pitts, Jr., interim chairperson and associate professor of the Industrial and Systems Engineering department. "I try to bring in students to learn about how robots can be designed, instituted and used in society."
In 2013, a team of students designed and built a robot that could travel on the surface of the moon and excavate lunar samples; it was entered in a prestigious international competition ‘Lunabotics' at the NASA Kennedy Space Flight Center. One of the IE students (Jason Carter, BS '11, MEng '13) from that team now sets up automated manufacturing plants for Honda.
"We were the only HBCU there," Dr. Pitts notes, adding that he hopes his students will compete again in 2018, and the focus now is broadened to include robots that could land on an asteroid or Mars - any rocky surface. That also has implications for mining here on Earth.
The IRAM lab also gives students a chance to design a product, test a manufacturing simulation and then actually make it in the lab. Dr. Pitts' goal for the next phase is to incorporate 3D printing into the process.
One of the stars of the lab is the Motoman HP3 Performer, a $35,000 robot funded by an NSF grant written and received by Dr. Pitts in 2009, used on automotive assembly lines. In addition to ‘Moto,' students also learn to operate older systems - including one so old it has a floppy disk drive (an Automated Storage Retrieval System (AS/RS) robotic warehouse) - because they may be encountered in existing work environments, where older assembly lines in manufacturing plants might not have been upgraded to the most modern technical systems.
In the world of transportation, drones are, of course, part of the future. Students start by learning the nuances of a small drone and then learn to fly it with an iPad. What's most important and dear to the heart of Dr. Pitts is when students master how to program and write code for drone autonomous maneuverability.
Dr. Pitts is a product of Morgan State. What led him into the field of engineering - Rollercoasters! Travelling with his family across the country to test the next thrill ride is a summer hobby that he enjoys. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in industrial engineering in 1991; but, soon thereafter was lured back to Morgan from industry by Dean Eugene DeLoatch, who recruited him to build a robotics lab. Dr. Pitts continued his education by receiving both his master's degree in 1995 and his Ph.D. degree from Penn State in 2006 while teaching here at MSU during the time between both degree programs.
Both undergraduate and graduate students may work in the lab. One undergraduate student, whose hobby is Tae Kwan Do, is developing a robot that could serve as a sparring partner.
"I open my lab for students to do different robotics projects," Dr. Pitts says. "Students are so creative today; I don't want to limit them."