One of the several areas the University of Toronto Mississauga is focusing on expanding is the innovative field of robotics. The Medium spoke to Julian Sequeira, a fourth-year computer science student at UTM and the events coordinator of the UTM Robotics Club, about robotics at UTM and the exciting projects the robotics club is currently working on.
The UTM Robotics Club was founded in September 2019 after Dr. Florian Shkurti, an assistant professor of mathematical and computational sciences at UTM, advised his CSC477: Introduction to Mobile Robotics students that it was the ideal time to start a robotics club since UTM was “making a big investment into robotics.” Sequeira and four other students thought it was a great idea so they worked together to initiate a robotics club at UTM.
As Sequeira details, “UTM launched a couple of robotics classes last fall [and] hired three robotics professors.” The professors bring with them expertise and innovation: Dr. Jessica Burgner-Kahrs, a worldwide expert in continuum robotics; Dr. Florian Shkurti, who completed his Ph.D. in computer science and robotics from McGill University; and Dr. Animesh Garg, who previously completed a post-doctoral fellowship at Stanford University. “There are [also] plans to offer more robotics courses next year, hire a couple more professors in robotics, and offer a robotics specialist for students.” Sequiera furthermore recalls Shkurti mentioning that there will be a new building for robotics at UTM along with “ten fully-featured robotic arms and facilities for robotics clubs and grad students.”
The robotics club offers an opportunity for students to work with physical hardware since there are no relevant classes currently being offered. The club “offer[s] workshops on Arduinos [and] 3D printers,” and, essentially, offers an avenue for students to “build things on a physical level.” The club is also a great opportunity for first and second-year students who are interested in robotics but cannot enrol in the third and fourth-year classes just yet.
The club is “working on a few different projects. The first one is a self-balancing pendulum…[for which they are currently] printing parts and [plan to] later write code to make it self balancing.” Another project is a “a self-driving car project” spearheaded by students who are taking an independent study class with Shkurti. The aim is to program the car so that it can “drive around campus and pick up trash.” Right now, the team is “training a neural net on [the car], which, in layman’s terms, [means] that [the team] drives it around the Deerfield building, taking pictures and controlling it with a joystick. If [the car] see a picture of a wall, the joystick input would be to turn left or right so it doesn’t crash into a wall, [and] later, when it is driving autonomously, it will see the wall, and based on the training it has, it will go left or right to avoid that wall.” The team will also be training a neural net on the car to teach it what items are garbage.
The third project UTM’s robotics club is working on involves training a drone to “recognize different gestures, and based on those gestures, do something.” As of now, they have trained it to follow faces. For instance, if the drone sees and recognizes a team member’s face and the person turns twenty degrees to the right, the drone will also turn twenty degrees to the right.
The club holds weekly sessions where members can come in and work on projects. It “helps if you have some computer science background, but if you do not, it’s completely fine.” Everyone is welcome to join. The executives are “always willing to mentor” participants and to “try finding something they can work on or get excited about.” In the future, the team looks forward to “grow[ing] alongside UTM investing in robotics.”