Chelsea Lau

Hometown: Honolulu, HI

B.S. Degree: Electrical Engineering from University of Hawaii at Mānoa

Degree sought from UCSB and Progress: M.S./Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering

Awards and Honors:

Graduate Study Area: Control Systems

Main Area of Research: Robotics

Advisor and Lab: Katie Byl

Research Interests: High-dimensional motion planning, autonomous robots

Professional Memberships: IEEE-HKN

Currently what are you working on?

My lab participated in the DARPA Robotics Challenge under JPL with their robot, RoboSimian.  RoboSimian is a quadruped with 7 degree-of-freedom limbs.  Our main focus at UCSB was on motion planning over rough terrain.  We developed a motion planner that populates a terrain with footholds then computes joint trajectories between them.  To compute the joint trajectories, we use a modified version of the RRT that incorporates look-up tables for a subset of the degrees of freedom.  The use of look-up tables reduces the search from a 35-dimensional space to a 16-dimensional space, of which 14 are subject to velocity and acceleration constraints.  RRT trajectories are often post-processed to obey these types of constraints, however, we have found that there are benefits to smoothing the trajectories while building the tree.  We are now looking at developing methods to ensure that the look-up trajectories are also guaranteed to obey dynamic constraints.

Describe how it felt to place 5th in the DARPA competition

There were some very impressive robots, so placing fifth amongst such competition was truly rewarding.   It was amazing to see the support for RoboSimian, and the enthusiasm in general for the robots.  Spectators were giving standing ovations and cheering for every team – it was incredible to see so many people as excited about the competition as we were.  I am very grateful to the team at JPL and Professor Byl for letting me be a part of such a great experience.

What are your long-term research goals?

One of the goals of our lab’s research is high-level autonomy in robots.  High-level autonomy is important in situations where communication is limited, such as in the DRC.  Instead of relying on an operator to give step-by-step instructions, the robot will be able to do the lower-level planning to figure out what it needs to do to complete a task.  This is also useful in situations where the operator has a non-technical background and would not necessarily be able to guide the robot through each low-level step.  Having robust and versatile methods for planning trajectories is an important part of reaching that goal since the robot will need to have a reliable way of coming up with joint trajectories on its own.  Some of my future work would involve identifying safe regions in which to select footholds and allowing for various types of support contacts, such as gripping in addition to ground-plane contacts.

How and why did you get into your area of research?

I was a TA for my now-advisor during my second quarter here at UCSB.  I really enjoyed working with her, and when I found out her lab was involved with the DRC, I was immediately excited about the possibility of being involved with the project.  It was a great opportunity to work with an actual robot and to work with the group at JPL.

Why did you select UCSB and ECE in regards to your research?

I chose to go to UCSB because of the excellent faculty, particularly in the area of controls.  In addition, I really liked the supportive nature of the department – there’s a real sense of community and everyone helps each other out.  Even though the ECE department is one of the largest graduate programs on campus, it feels very close-knit.  There are also a lot of academic, career, and recreational resources for both students and alumni.

What do you find rewarding about your research?

It’s always incredible to see something that you’ve designed using theory work in practice.  The problems initially seem so huge and intractable, but then a few months later and your robot places fifth in an international competition.  It’s really an amazing feeling.

Give us your thoughts on working in a group research environment and your experience working with an advisor

I have benefited immensely from working so closely with other members of our DRC team.  There was a lot I didn’t know when I started on the project, but the other team members were always willing to answer questions and give me advice when needed.  Once I got comfortable with the project, it was helpful to be able to share ideas with each other and feed off each other’s suggestions.  Having Professor Byl as an advisor has been extremely beneficial as she is always able to provide different perspectives and guidance.

Where will your research take you next?

I hope to continue doing work in robotics, whether in industry or in academia.  As evidenced by the DRC, there is a lot of interest in where robotics can go from here, and I’m excited to be a part of that journey.

Life as a graduate student and how you balance school, work, social, and family life?

One of the great things about UCSB is the sense of camaraderie.  My lab tries to go out together as much as we can, although it can be difficult to find mutual free time to do so.  When we do manage to coordinate times, though, we have a lot of fun and it’s really nice to share what we have been up to in our research.  It also makes the lab seem more like a family than just a workplace.