Embracing Uncertainties - Prof. Tin Lun Lam Shares His Passion for Robot Design
Prof, Tin Lun Lam is the Director of AIRS Research Center on Intelligence Robot and Assistant Professor at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen (CUHK-Shenzhen). His research paper won the IROS 2020 Best Paper Award on Robot Mechanisms and Design. Recently, seven paper from his team has been accepcted by ICRA 2021.
Q：Congratulations on receiving the IROS 2020 Best Paper Award on Robot Mechanisms and Design for your research paper "FreeBOT: A Freeform Modular Self-reconfigurable Robot with Arbitrary Connection Point – Design and Implementation". Is there anything you’d like to share with us?
Prof. Tin Lun Lam: Firstly, I’d like to thank the IROS committees for the recognition of our work, and AIRS for the support, and more importantly, I’d like to thank every member of our team for their dedication and hard work. Besides the award, our team also published a number of papers in the IROS 2020 conference, which is a great encouragement to us, a newly formed research team. It also gives us the confidence that the research direction we are working on is making an impact internationally. In the future, our team will continue to focus on the research of freeform robots and multi-robot systems, and we are ready to make more contributions to the society by developing advanced technologies and nurturing top-notch talents.
IEEE Spectrum reports on the paper
Q：The FreeBOT, hailed as a real-life "Big Hero 6", can be extended to different configurations to meet more functional requirements and accomplish multiple tasks, which demonstrates great potential to realize a freeform robotic system. Could you please introduce the design concept and technical features of FreeBOT
Prof. Tin Lun Lam: FreeBOT is a kind of modular self-reconfigurable robot (MSRR). MSRR system consists of many homogeneous modules, which can connect with each other physically to arrange themselves into different configurations according to task requirements. Theoretically, it can be a universal robot that can be transformed at will. This kind of robot is recoverable, scaleable and has strong adaptability, which can be applied in scenarios with complex environments and tasks, such as interstellar exploration, rescue, etc.
However, there are still many challenges to overcome in order to realize a universal robot with the ability to self-configure, and it will take a long and persistent commitment to overcome them step by step. One of these challenges is that the connection between modules is time-consuming and as complicated as performing a space station docking, which makes it extremely difficult to rearrange into different configurations. The design of FreeBOT has tackled this problem. With the ferromagnetic shell and an internal magnet, FreeBOT can be connected freely at any point and to rearrange in an effective way with fewer physical constraints. The design of this arbitrary connection was inspired by slime molds. The slime mold is a protist that does not have a fixed connection structure on its surface, but when needed, it can gather and cling together to form different shapes and functions in response to changes of environment. This has inspired us to think about the possibility of designing arbitrary connection points for modular, self-reconfigurable robots.
Q: We noticed that from the bionic robot TreeBot, a tree-climbing robot you made during your PhD, to this modular, self-reconfiguring robot FreeBOT, you have always focused on continuous innovation in robot design. Why did you choose to focus on robot design
Prof. Tin Lun Lam: I made that choice out of passion. I’m simply enthusiastic about developing robots.
Ever since I was a child, I have always been interested in amazing creatures of nature. I loved to observe and always marvel at habits of different animals, and how they deal with the various challenges of nature. Therefore, I enjoyed and did best in Biology at that time. Besides, I also liked to make things and interesting handicrafts by myself. Naturally, I started to wonder if I could create brand new life in my own way. But on second thought, creating new life takes a long time and might involve some ethical issues; in fact, biology is not the only approach to create intelligent, moving things-robotics can also create artificial life within a much shorter period. So I decided to pursue a career in robotics. In high school, I chose to study mathematics and science instead of biology which was always my forte. When I applied for university, I also chose those that offer robotics courses. Fortunately, with great efforts, I was able to be admitted to my favorite university and major. More fortunately, I met academician Yangsheng Xu, a renowned professor in the field of robotics. From then on, I began my career in robot research and is realizing my dream of inventing robots.
Prof. Tin Lun Lam
Q：What do you find most interesting in robot research over the years?
Prof. Tin Lun Lam: Research is like an adventure: you know what you want, but you never know what you will get in the end. There are all kinds of uncertainties in research, which is where the fun comes from. The research process can be an emotional roller coaster for you. You may feel like a genius when you have an “aha moment” after racking your brain and coming up with a solution. And when you find out that the idea doesn't work, you may instantly hit rock bottom and feel like an idiot. Then, you either admit that you're a fool and give up or you convince yourself that you've ruled out an unfeasible method and are one step closer to success. And then you move on to find new methods, back and forth, until you succeed.
The process of creating TreeBot was the longest and most memorable emotional roller coaster I have ever experienced in my research career. The original design idea was very different from the version today. During the development process, there were over ten failed versions with completely different structures and methods. Looking back, the process is a mixture of laughter and tears. You never know what will eventually come out until the last moment.
Prof. Tin Lun Lam is introducing TreeBOT
Q：Under your leadership, Research Center on Intelligent Robots at AIRS has conducted fruitful work in the past year. For example, one of the projects has received research fund from the National Natural Science Foundation of China, and quite a number of papers have been published in top journals and conferences. What’s your take on the development of the Center, as the director?
Prof. Tin Lun Lam: The goal of the Center is to develop cutting-edge robotics technologies in collaboration with leading international experts, to promote the application of new technologies in new fields, to popularize robotics and artificial intelligence knowledge in the community, and to build a world-class hub for the development and application of robot technology with Shenzhen as its core. Since its establishment, the Center has been continuously nurturing top-notch talents and working with top international experts to develop cutting-edge robotics technologies, and has achieved some results. We hope that as time goes by, our work will continue to benefit the society and carry forward the "for Society" spirit of AIRS.