Edinburgh Global

University Of Edinburgh NASA Partnership

We talk to Professor Sethu Vijayakumar, at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Robotics on the NASA partnership which helped secure Valkyrie, a robot destined for Mars.

We visited the Informatics Forum on Crichton Street, among the colourful flyers decorating George Square. The centre for the University’s School of Informatics was completed less than ten years ago and provides the environment and tools for researchers of various disciplines to discover new technologies in “communication, computation and cognition.” Through the glass doors we got to grab a peek at the work on robotics and autonomous systems being carried out at the world leading Edinburgh Centre for Robotics (ECR), also based at the Informatics Forum.

The ECR has some of the country’s best resources at its disposal to find ways to make robotics work for us in the fields of healthcare, assisted living, manufacturing and renewable energy; the Centre works closely with the School of Informatics, which is the only five star A-rated School of Computing in the UK and one of the top 4 in the world.

The School of Informatics is the only five star A-rated School of Computing in the UK and one of the top 4 in the world.

Due to the School’s excellence, the director of the ECR, Sethu Vijayakumar, was able to secure a partnership with NASA Johnson Space Centre for hosting the Valkyrie humanoid robot to advance its control and manipulation capabilities. NASA originally developed the robot to be used for disaster relief, but her research focus will be widened to include pre-deployment missions to Mars and as a testbed for cutting edge research on human motor control and prosthetic limbs at Edinburgh.

We were lucky enough to sit down with Sethu, who leads the project, to talk more about Valkyrie and the partnership Edinburgh has with NASA, the benefits it has for students in the School of Informatics and the opportunities students of other disciplines have to get involved in robotics.

An unusual partnership

It is under highly fortuitous and unique circumstances that NASA agreed to partner up with a university, particularly a foreign university. This project was the product of extensive negotiations and talks with NASA; as Sethu reminds us, NASA didn’t go into this deal to make money from Valkyrie but to utilise the knowledge and expertise of the individuals at the ECR. Part of the agreement of the project was that Edinburgh and NASA share information, drawing on one another’s skills and knowledge.

So what did ECR have that NASA was looking for? The Centre has world leading expertise in large scale machine learning applied to robot planning and control (most centres have specialities in one or the other) as well as unique innovation in the domain of compliant actuation. The funding for this project came from a government initiative to promote robotics and autonomous systems. The University of Edinburgh was one of only two universities in the UK to be awarded both funding for equipment as well as funding for PhD students.

The University of Edinburgh was one of only two universities in the UK to be awarded both funding for capital equipment as well as a Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) for training PhD students. 

Thanks to partnerships such as this, students at the School of Informatics have a tangible – and very cool – example of what they can do with all that knowledge gained from textbooks and lectures. As Sethu points out, it’s more valuable to excite students “with something very hands on, and then ask the question of what’s going on under the boot, rather than telling them this is what you need to learn without the bigger picture of why you [should] care about that.” This is particularly useful for any students who are having a difficult time connecting with their course material and would benefit from seeing an application of all that theoretical knowledge.

In addition, the knowledge gained from working on Valkyrie will be passed on to students through their interactions with the many PhD students and staff working on the project. This knowledge may be passed along during lectures and tutorials, or students will have the opportunity to attend lectures and seminars that discuss the technological developments discovered, in addition to choosing to do MSc projects that utilize such cutting edge hardware.

Interdisciplinary study

The benefits from Valkyrie aren’t limited to students studying informatics or engineering. The Informatics Forum is home to over 140 faculty members, not only from the School of Informatics but also from the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Science and some of the University Student Support Services. The open plan nature of the building encourages researchers of different disciplines get together socially and discuss issues, while the whiteboards covered in equations and notes are conversation starters that allow people to jump in with their ideas. The environment encourages students who come to study at the School of Informatics to engage across disciplines, knowing that the world’s issues don’t get solved in a vacuum.

Partnerships, like the one with NASA, exist in all of the University of Edinburgh’s areas of expertise and are made possible by the knowledge and skills exchanged between staff and students. The cycle continues as the insights these partnerships garner can be passed on and inspire those eager to learn.