Engineering Inside:

2014 Issue 3
Robotics

Meet Maciej J. Zawodniok!

September 2014

Maciej J. Zawodniok is Associate Professor of Computer Engineering at the MissouriMaciej Zawodniok University of Science and Technology (former UMR) and Assistant Director of NSF I/UCRC on Intelligent Maintenance Systems. Dr. Zawodniok’s research focuses on adaptive and energy-efficient protocols for wireless networks, network-centric systems, network security, cyber-physical and embedded systems with applications to manufacturing and maintenance. In addition, Dr Zawodniok is advising IEEE Student Branch and undergraduate students in IEEE Robotics, IEEE Black Box, and other competitions. For his work, he has received the Outstanding New Advisor of the Year award by Student Life at Missouri S&T (2012), and Outstanding Branch Counselor at both IEEE St Louis Section (2013) and Region 5 (2013).

How are robotics involved in the work you do?

I teach about embedded system design, and robotics is the most natural and enticing way for students to understand many challenges and relate the “boring” curriculum to real issues.

What is your educational background and how did this prepare you for your work with robotics?

I had received my undergraduate and MS degree in computer science and PhD in Computer Engineering. Both are an excellent combination for a robotics-related career since you need the understanding of the hardware and physical components, as well as how to write software that makes the robots look smart.

What do you love about working with robots?

I like the feeling of accomplishing something real that moves and does something in the real world. But what I love is having the robot or device behave in a new, unexpected way. You program it to follow a set of well-defined rules, then you let it operate in a real environment. As it encounters obstacles or interacts with humans, it starts to adapt to the situation. Perhaps, the robot does something new that you have not anticipated based on the set of rules; almost as if it has become a little intelligent. This is not trivial to achieve, but gives me thrills and sometimes nightmares 😉

Is there anything you don’t like about working with robotics?

Only when “Murphy’s Law” starts to “mess” with my project and nothing works as it is supposed to.

How do the fields of robotics and engineering blend in the work that you do?

In many projects I work with companies on automation. Such work could easily become focused on the robotics side only, but understanding the context of the application is very important. I may need to work with process engineers and mechanical engineers to understand what the robot has to do and what it cannot do. Also, it is important to remember that there are people with whom the robots will interact, who will have impact on how well the robot will perform in a real environment. All of these engineering disciplines have to come together to succeed.

Please describe a favorite project you have worked on that involved robotics? 

I love to work with student design teams on IEEE robotics competitions. While I’m not directly involved in the technical aspects, design work, or programming, it feels very rewarding to guide the students and help them figure out solutions. They take the basic knowledge from various courses and employ it in a large, multidisciplinary project. They learn, grow, and their robotics careers take off.

Whom do youFormation_of_robots_with_human_intruder admire and why?

I admire Isaac Asimov, the science fiction author, for giving us dreams filled with robots. In the age when robots were barely invented, he dreamed about the future with countless robots and how they can help humanity. Most of the ideas in his books and novels are yet to be achieved, but it gives inspiration to engineer the robots of the future.

How has the potential of robotics changed since you began your career?

Fortunately, I’m not too old to remember life without robots. However, when I was a young undergraduate student, robots were typically associated with simple industrial automation. They were distant, almost non-existent to most people. Today, there are robots present in our lives, schools, and homes. For example, I have an iRobot vacuuming my house, thus relieving me from the dreaded chore. Kids in school learn robotics by playing with Lego Mindstorms.

How do you think robotics applications will change in the next 10 years?

I believe we are on the verge of the next revolution – robotics revelation – with young minds ready to realize the dreams of Issac Asimov’s books. Robots will become a bigger and bigger part of our lives. In medicine, robots will improve the standard of living for the elderly and robotic prosthetics such as arms or legs with full sensory capabilities will enable amputees to live normal lives.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in the field?

Working in robotics is a multi-disciplinary effort. You need expertise in multiple fields from mechanics, electronics, and controls, to programming, human factors, and social engineering. You also need to understand the application and application specific domain, e.g. chemistry in process automation, or medicine and human physiology in healthcare.

What advice would you give to recent graduates entering the field?IMG_0444

Dream big! The potential of a robotics revolution is here and now – and you can lead and shape it. You could be the Steve Job or Bill Gates of the robotics industry.

If you weren’t working with robotics, what would you be doing?

Right at this moment … piloting a spaceship on the way to Mars.

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