E D U B O T S
SHAPING THE FUTURE OF ROBOTICS
Q & A With Members of WPI’s AIM Lab, by Marek Wartenberg & Chris Nycz
Marek Wartenberg, 27, of Portland, Maine, graduated from the University of Connecticut in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering. He received master’s degrees in biomedical engineering from UConn and in automation and control engineering from Politecnico di Milano. His research focus is on surgical robotics.
Chris Nycz, 25, of Wallkill, New York graduated from Clarkson University in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. He received a master’s degree in robotics engineering from WPI in 2016. His research focus is on assistive robotics.
We spent a few minutes with the researchers at the lab to learn about their start in robotics, their specific projects, and the future of the robotics field for young people.
Robot: When did you become interested in robotics?
Wartenberg: I was a biomedical engineering undergraduate at UConn and our senior design project was geared to people with disabilities. Our project involved a 6-year-old boy named Joey who had cerebral palsy. Joey wanted a go-kart, but lacked the motor coordination to drive, so we built a remote-controlled go-kart for his parents to drive him around in. We spent a year on this project, and when I realized we weren’t building a go-kart but rather a big robot, I decided I didn’t want to go to medical school anymore. I wanted to build more robots.
Nycz: I think my love of robotics is something that kept developing throughout my life. I was always more mechanically inclined. My dad was an electrical engineer. I think I saw more value in having a combined engineering background. Being able to incorporate electronics, controls, and programming into my mechanical designs really appealed to me.
Robot: What projects are you involved with now?
Wartenberg: We are building MRI-compatible robots for prostate cancer biopsies. High-tech image-guided therapy is a growing field and we’re focused on deep needle insertion into the body for targeted biopsies. For years, this has been a guess-and-check process, but now we’re trying to actively steer a needle to a particular location using real-time image feedback from an MRI. We actually have our first robot in clinical trials currently underway.
Nycz: Our project involves working to minimize the size of assistive orthotic devices while maximizing their functionality. We’re focused on helping people who have had trauma such as a stroke, which would lead to weakness on one or both sides of their body. We worked last summer with collaborators in Switzerland.
Robot: Is the medical robotics field promising for future roboticists?
Wartenberg: I think this is an extremely promising field based on some of the limitations in medical procedures taking place today. It’s a field with real-life significance where robots can decrease the length and invasiveness of procedures leading to shorter recovery times.
Nycz: A number of research areas in medical robotics are likely to begin maturing in the next few years, so I believe there will be growing opportunities.
Robot: How can young people improve their understanding of robotics?
Nycz: I think a lot of it has to do with hands-on work and real projects. When I was 16, I bought a 1975 Datsun 280Z and rebuilt the motor with my father. I drove that car during high school. And it wasn’t just about engineering but about seeing how other mechanical systems work. That really inspired me.
Wartenberg: Robotics is multi-disciplinary: you need knowledge in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and computer science. Young people can really benefit from learning the basics in a whole set of engineering skills, and then specializing in one. You can really see how teams come together when each member has an understanding of their teammates’ roles.
Photo credit: All WPI photos in the May/June EduBots by Matthew Burgos/Worcester Polytechnic Institute.