Each week, staff writer Paul Wood talks with a high-tech leader. This week, meet SHUBHANKAR AGARWAL, a University of Illinois senior in computer engineering who founded Illinois AUV, a student group working to perfect an autonomous underwater vehicle. He interned at Uber Advanced Technology Group in Pittsburgh and has worked as part of a motion-planning team for autonomous cars.
UI AUV is a student-run organization and with an aim to make autonomous robots, specifically underwater vehicles. Is it important to have experience in these kinds of projects as an undergraduate?
I think it is very important to have hands-on experience on projects outside the class. In classes, everything is theoretical and perfect. There is a big difference between application and proving it on paper. During this year we had to completely change our design since competition rules were completely changed. These kind of situations make you a better engineer, be more adaptive and develop important skills. Since our computing unit is inside a pressurized tube, we cannot run algorithms which will make our computer too hot, so we have to be very careful what we use. Employers love these kinds of projects.
The organization is mainly research-focused and progresses towards a goal innovating and creating robust autonomous robots for an annual competition in San Diego features around 50 of teams from around the world. Has this already happened?
We participated in Robosub 2017 and we are planning to be there again this summer. Last year was our first and we finished 22nd out of 44 teams. I think it is great achievement for a first-year team. We have some really cool things planned for this summer and are hoping to reach finals.
Your goal is to bring people with different skill sets from different backgrounds to pursue a common goal. Who else is on the team?
We have a very diverse team in terms of different majors represented. We have computer engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, mechanical engineering, aerospace engineer and nuclear engineer. This is very important for us since this is an interdisciplinary project and different majors bring very different skill sets. Adrian Brandemuehl, another senior in computer engineering, has been an integral member this year and will be leading the team for Robosub 2018.
How relevant is this project with current trends in autonomous cars/robotics/machine learning?
The same basic concepts of robotics apply to this project as apply to autonomous cars. We perceive our environment with bunch of sensors and make decisions based on that. We use a lot of same algorithms and software packages as used by autonomous cars.
What are some applications of an autonomous submarine?
Autonomous submarines have very wide applications. Seventy percent of our world is under water and vast majority of is still unexplored. Also, AUVs will play a very key role in making underwater mining economical. Oil companies spend millions of dollars for maintenance of their offshore drilling operations and AUVs can help make that process automated and efficient.
Enigma has no streamlined hull, only a pair of waterproof cameras and two small motors mounted on either side of an acrylic frame. They're connected to a bundle of electronics inside watertight cylinders. The craft is small and light enough for one person to carry. Why did you decide to skip the hull?
We had a very little experience with mechanical design and picked most economical option. We ended up buying a kit and further modified it based on our needs. This year, we will be making two submarines completely from scratch for Robosub 2018. We are planning to call them Champaign and Urbana.
You've had success using innovation instead of expensive industry-level hardware. Why are some of the tools you've created?
During Robosub 2017, we were competing against teams with budgets of around $100,000. Our submarine was made for with total amount of $3,000. Our AUV, is mainly made of very cheap acrylic and electronics. We are experimenting with computer-vision methods that help us with mapping and thus will potentially eliminate the need of a $15,000 part. We also are working with Oceancomm, a startup in Research Park, to help us achieve underwater communication. No other team in the competition has achieved that yet.
How have you used artificial intelligence to enhance the sub?
First year, most of our time was spent getting the mechanical structure and electronics right. But we were able to experiment with neural net instead of classic computer-vision algorithms, and fortunately the results were very successful. Working with Professor David Forsyth has helped us a lot.
Does the sub meet your goals of putting Illinois in the capacity to compete at the international RoboSub competition organized by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, which is held at the Space and Naval Warfare Command Research facility in San Diego?
We were very happy with our results from first year. We had a great time and learned a lot about the competition. The experience from last year will greatly save time and resources.
Tell us about the competition.
International Robosub is a week long annual competition held in San Diego. Robosub 2017 was the 20th year of the competition. The competition starts on Monday with an orientation. Teams have until Saturday to perform and qualify. All the qualified teams get two chances to do semifinal run on Friday and Saturday. The top seven teams from semi-finals get to compete in finals which are held on Sunday. The AUV has to perform many tasks underwater completely autonomously: object detection, path following, marker dropping, torpedo shooting and acoustic sensing. Teams are given points based on how many tasks they can complete.
TECH TIDBITS ... with SHUBHANKAR AGARWAL
Social media you prefer: linkedin.com/in/shubhankar-agarwal/
Favorite app: Robinhood, a stock trading app I have been using for the past year and half.
What are you reading right now? Right now, a bunch of math books.
Do you have any wearable electronics? No.
Do you have an entrepreneur hero? No, but I'm incredibly impressed how we have grown as team and have created an amazing learning environment for everyone.