Meet CBI Faculty Host: Aaron Johnson

Aaron M. Johnson

Jul 19, 2023

Aaron Johnson in his lab with multiple robots on the table in front of him

I am excited to welcome Vivek Thangavelu as a CBI postdoctoral fellow in the CMU Mechanical Engineering Department this fall. Vivek is both a great full-stack roboticist, who can lead all aspects of a complex project, and also a wonderful person to work with. Every time I have met with him I have left excited about the work he was discussing. I was honored that Vivek wanted to join my lab as a postdoc and am eager to see what he will create in my lab.

Vivek’s research plan is focused on environmental monitoring of contaminants in soils. How can we use robots to go out and explore terrain to check for possible contamination? There are many sites that are unusable today because of past natural or man-made contamination. These sites can be difficult to manage, especially if the contaminant is harmful to human health. Robots could be a great resource to monitor and remediate these areas. But more research is required on the design of these robots and the AI to enable them to operate autonomously.

This project is important in two ways. First, it will help address the challenges of soil contamination monitoring and remediation. Second, the approaches we develop for navigation over rough terrain, adaptive exploration, and robot intelligence in general will also be of use to other application areas. We are working with partners in industry who are tasked with managing contaminated soils. We hope to see these robots out monitoring and remediating sites in the near future.

His postdoc project follows naturally from his Ph.D. work, which spanned from how to design the robots up to high level coordination and decision making. His Ph.D. work focuses on how robots can modify the terrain around them to better achieve their tasks, like building a ramp if needed to get across a gap. This is both a very exciting research direction and also shows his ability to think about a whole problem.

Robot for external surfaces

Overall, my lab, the Robomechanics Lab, is working to get robots to work out in challenging, real-world environments. Unlike a factory, where we can carefully control everything from the finish on the floor to the lighting, when we go outdoors on unstructured terrain the robot has to adapt to whatever it encounters. This creates a lot of exciting challenges, but also opens the door for a host of applications like environmental monitoring, search and rescue, and agriculture.

The CBI Fellows program provides a unique opportunity for postdocs to come work at CMU and receive professional development support to prepare for their next step. One thing I like about this fellowship is that it is really focused on setting up a fellow to succeed. It is student-focused and is structured to be supportive of their career goals. I am looking forward to working with Vivek and what we can accomplish through this program!