Moog gift supports research into safer autonomous vehicles

Two excavtors carry a large, long pole toward a group of people standing on concrete. A robot dog stands with the people.

UB researchers and Moog engineers to collaborate on work with autonomous excavators. 

By Peter Murphy

Published July 8, 2024

Work supported by the gift could bring together multiple robotics experts at UB and Moog

Moog, Inc., a global designer, manufacturer and integrator of precision control components and systems, and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences corporate partner, will provide $750,000 to support research in the University at Buffalo’s Center for Embodied Autonomy and Robotics (CEAR)

“The impact of this work goes beyond technological development, creating opportunities for students and faculty in our school and experts at Moog to share resources and knowledge with each other. ”
Kemper Lewis, Dean
School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

The gift will fund work led by Karthik Dantu, associate professor in computer science and engineering and CEAR co-director. Dantu and a team of UB faculty, students and Moog engineers will work with autonomous excavators. In addition to the gift, Moog has made two mini-excavators available for experimentation.

“This is completely a research endeavor,” Dantu says. “We will use the excavator platform as a testbed to demonstrate some of the ongoing research. Separately, Moog uses excavators for all sorts of applications.”

One of Dantu’s research areas is perception—how robots see the world. Working with the excavators, he will develop a method to give them 360-degree visibility and the ability to recognize certain objects of a certain size. These capabilities give the excavators safe perception and the ability to locate a traversable path, recognize obstacles that might be in the way, and, eventually, the ability to work with other excavators and autonomous robots. Perception also plays a significant role when the excavators dig trenches, clear debris and transport materials. The excavators must identify their target and perform these tasks with precision, carry heavy objects to an endpoint or complete other tasks typical of some of the industries that generally employ the heavy-duty machines.

Karthik Dantu Asst. Prof Computer Science.

Karthik Dantu

According to Dantu, developing guaranteed recognition, correct follow through on certain tasks and safety for autonomous excavators could transform entire industries like construction and mining.

“In Canada, there’s a lot of mining and that domain is interesting because they’re in harsh conditions,” Dantu says. “You don’t want people to be working in minus 20 or minus 40-degree temperatures. If something is autonomous, or even if you can do remote operation, that goes a long way.”

Collaborating with Moog

This new gift is the latest step in a history of collaboration between the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Moog. The company established and continues to support the Moog Professor of Innovation professorship, currently held by John Crassidis, SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. 

The research collaborations between the organizations thus far have produced groundbreaking developments in additive manufacturing, artificial intelligence and agricultural autonomy.

“The focus of the gift will be on technological development: To investigate and learn more about how to leverage advances in computer science relating to safe, collaborative robotic control and autonomy. To discover and develop critical pathways leading to new capabilities and uses for land, air and space vehicles, including autonomous vehicles and collaborative robotics,” says George Small, chief technology officer at Moog. “In addition to vehicles themselves, inquires of interest may extend to the systems operating in and controlling and manipulating their operating environments.”

Small says the learning associated with this work will foster collaborations between UB students and faculty and Moog personnel. Moog experts will bring their skills and experience to the UB campus, as well. They will also collaborate around architectures and solutions associated with the work, and Moog will perform real-world testing of the technology in representative environments.

“As a global leader in precision motion control across land, sea, air and space, Moog has long been involved in automation and its various applications. We see autonomy as a further extension of this automation,” Small says. “The increasing levels of intelligence and control that can be incorporated into mobile machines will enable new ways of solving problems.”

School of Engineering and Applied Sciences Dean Kemper Lewis will work with Dantu to support mutual engagement of faculty members and students with employees and leadership in Moog.

“This collaboration between Moog and UB has the potential to advance automation and robotics in many critical areas,” says Lewis. “The impact of this work goes beyond technological development, creating opportunities for students and faculty in our school and experts at Moog to share resources and knowledge with each other.”

Faculty members with backgrounds spanning across disciplines and their students will contribute to the project funded by this gift

Dantu is focused on perception and coordination—how robots work together—but other aspects of the project could require additional areas of expertise from faculty members in departments across the school, including:

Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

  • Souma Chowdhury, co-director of CEAR and associate professor, is working on machine learning and how robots learn different behaviors and group behaviors in swarm systems, swarm-bots and autonomous systems.
  • Ehsan Esfahani, associate professor, focuses on human-machine interactions, bipedal locomotion for both humans and humanoids and biorobotics and mechatronics.
  • Chaozhe He, assistant professor, works with connected autonomous vehicles, and is solving various problems in the spaces of logistics, connectivity and control.
  • Tarunraj Singh, professor, works in optimal control, and can designate specific, precise movements for robots.
  • Ryan St. Pierre, assistant professor, designs mechanisms inspired by biology.

Department of Computer Science and Engineering

  • Roshan Ayyalasomayajula, assistant professor, works with sensors, and can enable robots and autonomous vehicles with radio frequency sensors to determine how dense soil is or what is on the other side of a wall.
  • Chen Wang, assistant professor, focuses on geometric learning. Geometric learning takes perception a step further and allows robots to see the world the way humans do.

“We are grateful for this opportunity to collaborate with UB and look forward to the advancements that will undoubtedly arise from this partnership,” Small says.

This gift is just one of the many ways that Moog, Inc. has supported UB through the Boldly Buffalo campaign. Their commitment has helped enable the school to meet its fundraising goals and develop an industry pipeline for students and contributed to innovations in engineering. In 2018, Moog established a Professor of Innovation position for a highly regarded faculty member with a strong track record of researching, teaching and industry collaboration in areas of mutual interest to Moog and UB.