by Jane Stoyle Welch
Published May 19, 2021
Minghui Zheng, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the University at Buffalo, has won a 2021 Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation.
She is the third faculty member in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences to be recognized with the prestigious award this year.
Zheng’s CAREER award, which is funded with $571,087 over five years, will provide support for her research to equip drones with a new capability to learn from the experience of other drones, despite their different dynamics and platforms, via a novel learning-based control framework.
“The capability of learning from the experiences gathered by other drones can significantly reduce the design, test, evaluation and certification of drones. Therefore, it has huge potential to promote mass production of heterogeneous drones in various areas and bring frontier drone-related research into practical applications rapidly,” says Zheng.
The research has applications in infrastructure inspection, maintenance and repairs.
“Minghui’s project will develop a framework to enable robots to learn fundamental control skills that are critical for them to perform complex tasks. It creates a foundation to fundamentally understand how robots efficiently learn from the experiences gathered by other robots and unlocks current limitations toward mass customization of autonomous robotic systems,” says Francine Battaglia, professor and chair of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.
“Her research aligns with initiatives focused on autonomy and robotics, and is well-positioned to lead her research initiatives for synergistic gains and sustained impact within UB,” added Battaglia.
In addition to funding research activities, the award also supports Zheng’s educational outreach plans, which involve a broad range of groups including elementary and high school students, as well as undergraduate and graduate students.
“I plan to work closely with UB’s National Grid STEM Mentoring Program and bring drones to Westminster Community Charter School classrooms,” says Zheng. “I also plan to provide research opportunities to undergraduate students in UB’s Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program.”
The CAREER Award is the NSF’s most prestigious award in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education, and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations.
Entitled “Facilitating Autonomy of Robots Through Learning-Based Control,” Zheng’s award is funded by NSF’s Division of Computer and Network Systems (CNS).
Zheng is the director of the University at Buffalo Control and Automation Lab, where she leads projects on UAVs, manipulators and mobile robots. Her research program seeks to improve many aspects of robotics including learning, planning, control, and human-robot collaboration.
In addition to the CAREER award, Zheng is the principal investigator of a $3 million National Science Foundation grant on human-robot collaboration for the disassembly of end-of-use products, and has been funded by NSF for her work on connected vehicles and product disassembly for remanufacturing. She received the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences early career researcher of the year award in 2020.
She is affiliated with UB’s Sustainable Manufacturing and Advanced Robotic Technologies (SMART) Community of Excellence.
Zheng joined the University at Buffalo in 2017, after earning her PhD in mechanical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley.