Students in Assistant Professor Panagiotis Polygerinos’ Bio-Inspired Mechatronics Lab are developing an autonomous quadcopter, or drone, to monitor SRP canal systems for contaminants.

Hundreds of white amur fish navigate SRP canals throughout the East Valley to control the growth of weeds that can damage the canal system.

But those fish are not a viable option in some smaller canals, leaving the utility searching for alternatives to remove the unwanted vegetation.

That is where students at Arizona State University’s Polytechnic campus in Mesa come in.

“We are looking at applications and areas in SRP where they don’t have a technical solution right now,” assistant professor Dan Aukes said.

Aukes, a Gilbert resident, supervises students working in ASU’s IDEAlab, which stands for Integrating Design, Engineering and Analysis. The lab is a nexus for solving an array of problems with robotics.

Those problems are the focus of some projects funded by Salt River Project, but Polytechnic students are working on inventions to address challenges in other fields, such as stroke recovery and physical therapy.

In the university’s Robotics and Intelligent Systems Laboratory, researchers are working on several projects to make existing dreams a reality for a diverse slate of industries from eCommerce to public safety.

They include:

Autonomous bicycles: Researchers are working on gyroscope and autonomous balance technology that could aid disabled riders and seniors who want to ride bikes.

This autonomous technology could also benefit the bike share programs already active in major cities across the country by giving bikes the ability to return themselves to a central hub after use.

Delivery drones: Inspired by Amazon’s aspirations to deliver products by drone, students are developing an algorithm that will allow multiple quadcopters to work together to deliver heavy objects.

The algorithm will allow one drone to function as the leader, with others – potentially hundreds – acting as followers.

Collapsible drones: Researchers are designing a quadcopter with flexible and foldable arms.

This technology could allow police officers and other first responders to store the drone in their pockets for use at a moment’s notice to track high-speed chases or respond to emergencies in complex terrain.

In the IDEAlab, doctoral student Mohammad Sharifzadeh is developing an autonomous robotic fish that can navigate narrow canals and cut unwanted grasses that can grow between six inches and one foot per day.

The fish robot’s two-pronged tail and thin, cylindrical body resemble a real fish because Sharifzadeh is taking tips from real-world animals to aid in the robot’s locomotion.

Projects in the IDEAlab predominantly use inexpensive materials. This allows students to test multiple designs and prototypes cheaply and quickly, Assistant Professor Daniel Aukes said.

The current fish prototype uses a mixture of 3-D-printed rigid plastic and flexible plastic that can be designed quickly so the researchers can experiment with thickness.

“(Using cheap materials) allows all students in the lab to make robots over and over and over and refine their robots that way. This is instead of a long, drawn-out process of analysis and design that results in one failure that requires them to start over in that process for another couple of months,” Aukes said.

SRP is funding the project, and one day the robotic descendants of this early prototype will likely make their way through SRP’s vast system of canals.

“Something we enjoy about (working with ASU) is that it allows us to work with local experts on issues specific to SRP,” said Chico Hunter, the utility’s manager of research and environmental policy.

He added that the solutions ASU is working on can increase safety and efficiency for the utility as it monitors over a thousand miles of canals, laterals and ditches in addition to eight reservoirs.

The mutually beneficial relationship between ASU and SRP goes back 35 years.

“The interesting thing is it gives us a realistic grounding in a problem that needs to be solved rather than a theoretical problem that may not have a practical application,” Aukes said.

Hunter expressed a similar sentiment.

“(SRP is) getting good information to (solve) real-world problems, and the university and students get access to learn about real utility industry issues,” he said.

Hunter, who is bullish on the program, and said ASU professors and students often find solutions to longstanding industry issues because they think outside the box.

He points to SRP’s Flowtopgraphy project as one example. The technology helps SRP understand watershed conditions in Arizona using remote photography and was developed collaboratively with ASU after traditional measurement equipment proved ineffective.

The fish robot could be the next collaboration to change the way SRP manages water in Arizona.

Using specialized sensors, Sharifzadeh tests the robot in a small fish tank to understand how much force it generates. He will use that data to evaluate the effectiveness of the current design.

Based on the force data, the student will optimize the design of the fin and make decisions regarding the thickness of the material used in the robot.

“The idea isn’t to make one robot that is very expensive and does everything,” Aukes said.

Rather, he added, the point is to create an inexpensive robot that can take care of a specific issue and is a cost-effective solution for SRP to deploy on a large scale.

While Aukes students are focusing on what’s under the surface in SRP canals, others at the Polytechnic campus are looking at the systems from above.

Students in Assistant Professor Wenlong Zhang’s Robotics and Intelligent Systems Laboratory are working collaboratively with students in assistant professor Panagiotis Polygerinos’ Bio-Inspired Mechatronics Lab to develop another product for SRP: an autonomous quadcopter, or drone.

“We get a lot from (the partnership); not just the funds to run the research but also the students are able to interact with real-world applications and partners. They get to see real-world applications happen in front of their eyes, and they are part of it,” Polygerinos said.

Using algorithms developed in Zhang’s lab, the drone would monitor SRP canal systems for contaminants.

Using soft robotics – a new field of robotics that uses compliant, flexible materials instead of the traditional rigid and hard components typically seen in robots – Polygerinos’ students have created a soft grasper hand that can remove those objects using compressed air.

“What that grasper does in reality is it eliminates the control complexity for us, because it doesn’t need to know exactly the location of the object or how big or small it is thanks to the (flexibility) of the simple materials we use,” Polygerinos said.

Ph.D. students Carly Thalman and Sridar Saivimal are still working on a prototype of the project, which will eventually include on-board GPS and compressed air systems so it can fly autonomously.

The drone also may be able to take water samples for SRP in the future.

Students in Zhang and Polygerinos’ labs are also working together to develop a walking aid that can assist stroke patients in their recovery in collaboration with Barrow Neurological Institute.

The project received funding from the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust.

The product that Ph.D. students Shatadal Mishra and Zhi Qiao have come up with does not look like much on the surface. However, in practice, it could be life changing.

It consists of an inflatable black bladder that attaches behind a patient’s knee and starts off soft and malleable. Then, when pressurized with air, the bladders – also called actuators – become stiff and can provide support for the knee as stroke patients relearn how to walk.

Much like the SRP robots, the project requires the algorithms and control mechanisms developed by Zhang’s students and the soft robotics know-how from those working with Polygerinos.

“This is a nice collaborative project that has several interesting components (including) sensing, soft robotics, control (mechanisms). … This project gives you a good idea of what a robotic project looks like; it does require expertise and information from a wide variety of fields,” Zhang said.

One of the students demonstrated the device for reporters by walking on a treadmill, the actuator inflating and deflating as he moved.

Using sensors developed in Zhang’s lab, the device is able to track a range of information, including where a patient is at in their step. The device uses this information to regulate stiffness and support during physical therapy.

The product is set to begin clinical design trials in November.

– Reach Wayne Schutsky at 480-898-6533 or

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