Carnegie Mellon senior dreams of robots

By day, Barsa shapes metal in his workshop that will serve as a base for Caterpillar machinery. However, his dream is to create robots that can function autonomously in outer space. (credit: Courtesy of Ray Barsa) By day, Barsa shapes metal in his workshop that will serve as a base for Caterpillar machinery. However, his dream is to create robots that can function autonomously in outer space. (credit: Courtesy of Ray Barsa)

The word “beauty” typically instills images of graceful paint strokes, flower blossoms, or sunny smiles. Cold metal and precise calculations are not classic conceptions of beauty, but there are those who find the cooperation of mechanical parts to be the most “beautiful” thing there is. Ray Barsa, a senior mechanical engineering major, cuts metal and builds machine pieces for Caterpillar, Inc., but contemplates the use of his talents on robots that will traverse the outer reaches of our solar system.

Barsa’s workshop is full of metal-cutting machines with blades of all shapes and sizes: circular blades, and spinning cylindrical blades, vertical blades with perforated edges. He spends his time dividing pieces of metal and screwing them together to make mounts for sensors that detect where other Caterpillar bulldozers are in relation to each other, and where their workers are.

“I cut pieces of metal that act as an interface between sensors and machines. I have to come up with ways to mount the sensors efficiently,” Barsa said while cutting aluminum with a band saw. “The mount I’m making has to hold the sensor device securely, make sure it doesn’t rattle itself to death, and can be replaced easily.” One miscalculation at a scale of one tenth of an inch may cause sensors to overlook a human being, which could result in severe injury or death to the worker. Barsa makes several prototypes like these by hand and passes them on to higher authorities in Caterpillar’s research department. “It’ll be about one in every 10 projects that my division does that works its way into the machines,” he said.

However, Barsa’s real passion lies in the development of robots that will travel to the moon and Mars. His work mounting sensors for Caterpillar machines is juxtaposed with research projects at Carnegie Mellon that develop rovers to crawl across the moon. He has participated in Carnegie Mellon research teams composed of faculty and graduate students with goals of developing space rovers that can sense their surroundings and speed up communication between space and ground control. Barsa is already accomplished in his field; he has published papers, written grant proposals, placed in prestigious robotics competitions, and worked at a graduate level since he was a first-year.

“The research [at Carnegie Mellon] is cutting edge and promising for space robots,” he said. “If robots are going to be more valuable than humans in space, they need to be autonomous.” This is where engineers come in.

Currently, robots alert ground control when they encounter an obstacle. When ground control receives information that a rover has encountered a blockage as simple as a rock, it sends instructions about how to respond back to space and then wait for confirmation that the instructions were carried out. Each leg of this communication — robot to Earth, Earth to robot, robot back to Earth — takes six minutes if the robot is on Mars and three minutes if on the moon. As a result, mission controllers on earth can only draw up a plan each morning for how many centimeters the robot will cover in a day. Then they can only wait for problems to come their way.

Barsa’s goal is to develop robots that do not need to wait for six-minute-delayed commands from Earth. Carnegie Mellon specializes in path planning and sensor development, which would give robots the tools to immediately respond and interact with their surroundings.
Robots such as these can be used in numerous different ways. They can react instantaneously to the sensory information they gain by shooting lasers into the world around them. They could act on their own, gathering samples, researching outer space, without the constant guidance of humans. They could also not only navigate through our living rooms, vacuuming and sweeping, but could also wash windows or move furniture. With this technology, we could manufacture robotic cars that drive for us, reducing accidents and making lives easier.

For now, Barsa’s big ideas are contained in his underground research lab and balanced by schooling and his job at Caterpillar. However, Barsa’s enthusiasm for the future is always present. “I feel like I’m good at it. I feel like I can make a difference. I can design things better than other people may,” he said. “This is one of the most objective things a person can do — if something’s off a thousandth of an inch, it doesn’t work — and I have a gift for it.”

While some people see beauty in the way a flower blossoms or in the colors in a sunset, Barsa sees beauty in the integration of man and machine into a single efficient system. “Robotics is the future.... We will need more systems automated to support larger populations. Having more robots around means humans have fewer monotonous tasks to do. They have such potential to change the world for the better.”

As the parts of the machines in his lab work together to cut metal, as that metal works with wires and coding to sense objects, as members of a team collaborate to build something amazing, robots of the future may work with humans to make our world a better place.