Dr. Hector Medina & Carson Farmer
Name: Dr. Hector Medina
Department: Mechanical Engineering
Field: Robotics, Controls, and Energy Systems
What is your research focus?
In the area of robotics and controls, we are interested in understanding the modeling and control of soft robotics. Traditional robotic systems are stiffed and not human-like. The idea is to use soft materials (such as dielectric elastomers) to mimic how living creatures actuate and sense. This introduces several challenges such as nonlinearities, more degrees of freedom, fabrication difficulties, etc. We have developed a framework for modeling and predicting the behavior of dielectric elastomers as actuators. This has provided us with a tool to predict the behavior for some soft robotic configurations.
In the area of Energy Systems, we are interested in understanding the ability to predict energy consumption for buildings, specially using data-driven approaches such as machine learning. In addition, we are interested in studying, developing, and utilizing energy-storing systems as a means to provide more flexibility to the grid. We are currently developing a pumped storage hydropower technology that will provide flexibility for implementation in urban locations.
What is the research experience and mentorship like for you?
The most fascinating aspects of research for me are: (1) to discover something new, and (2) to equip our students to become the next generation of researchers. Research is inherently open ended. Therefore, the research experience provides a sense of humility as well as satisfaction. In addition, mentoring our students to become independent researchers, even as we conduct research makes the experience more self-rewarding and exciting.
What impact will this research have on your field?
Discovering novel ways to model and fabricate soft robotics can have an important impact in fields such as biomedical, communication, consumer products, etc. Solutions could include the development of tools to: assist people with Parkinson’s syndrome, improve point-to-point laser-based communication, improve wearables, etc. Furthermore, by developing a detailed framework for implementing more robust ways to model the nonlinearities and permittivity-changing properties of dielectric elastomers, we will provide useful tools for other researchers and developers in the field of soft robotics. In addition, the development of new electronic-skin materials could set the stage for advanced robotic systems.
Developing novel technologies for storing energy using pumped water could increase the development of renewable energy technologies in urban locations. Finally, the ability of accurately predict energy consumption in multiple-building applications could help reshape the demand profile and reduce the electrical bill. This could also help make a more flexible grid, save energy, and save investment costs in new grid infrastructure.
What have been some of the most exciting and/or rewarding aspects of collaborating with students in research?
One of two most rewarding aspects of collaborating with students in research is the opportunity to train them to become independent researchers and life-long learners. The excitement that my students show when they help me discover something new is contagious and gratifying. I have seen how some of my undergraduate students continue to become PhD and Master students in various universities such as Purdue, Colorado State University, Virginia Commonwealth University, Georgia Tech, etc. Others have become engineers in top companies such as Lockheed Martin or General Motors, for example. In addition, seeing several of these student collaborators being able to co-author and publish peer-reviewed article with me has been very rewarding.
The Center for Research and Scholarship at LU has been critical in helping support our research as well as the dissemination of it. Without their support, the research experience for my students would not be as rewarding and impactful as it has.
Name: Carson Farmer
Major: Mechanical Engineering
Mentor: Dr. Hector Medina
What is your research project?
My current research is focused on the design and implementation of soft actuators and sensors. These soft systems are designed to mimic systems found in nature such as muscle and tissue. Currently, we have found uses for these soft sensors and actuators in active vibration dampening for optical communication systems and in producing smooth controlled motions.
Another facet of my research with Dr. Medina involves the design of sensing and control approaches for mechatronic systems. These are systems that require the use of mechanical and electrical components to operate. Within this research, we are exploring autonomous drone flight for crowd monitoring to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Likewise, we are investigating a series of bio-sensors to gather information on muscle signals and their corresponding neurological signals. From understanding these signals, we are hoping to create a device to help people with involuntary tremors, such as those resulting from Parkinson’s Disease, interact with the digital world.
How did you get involved in research with a faculty mentor?
My research with Dr. Medina started at the end of my freshman year. I started working on the dielectric elastomer project which was focused on the design of optimal configurations of dielectric elastomers for specific purposes. The research started with fabricating different patterns and shapes of actuators and finding the uses for each shape. The group has grown to include different research projects and students from other majors.
What impact will this research have on your future academic and professional opportunities?
From the undergraduate research I have done, I will be going into graduate school to further develop the soft sensors and actuators I have been developing. Undergraduate research helped me become familiar with the research process and allowed me to see what I could do in a graduate program. Undergraduate research helped me to discover what I liked about research and the benefits that performing research provides.
What is your favorite part of undergraduate research?
My favorite part about research is being able to make a discovery that no one has made before. In engineering, most of the research involves connecting existing ideas to find new approaches to solving a problem or developing a new tool or program to solve an issue. During my research, the most rewarding part has been when I have been able to get my research published either in journals, conferences, or posters. The ability to share my research with the rest of the world has been one of my favorite parts of the research.
What advice would you give to a student who is considering becoming involved in research?
I would encourage anyone starting undergraduate research to explore the different areas that are available to them to research in. My research has become very diverse because of the different interests I have. I would encourage anyone starting to explore every idea that they have since you never know what could be a breakthrough that no one has thought of before.