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Distinctive translational research and innovation are integrating haptics into robots and virtual reality: Prof Saeid Nahavandi, Deakin University

Prof Saeid Nahavandi, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Defence Technologies) and Director of the Institute for Intelligent Systems Research and Innovation (IISRI), Deakin University recently spoke to Dataquest about the kind of research that is taking place in the university in terms of Spacetech, and the opportunities that the field can give rise to.

DQ: Tell us about your experience as the Pro Vice-Chancellor (Defence Technologies) and Director of the Institute for Intelligent Systems Research and Innovation (IISRI) and all the innovative things you’re working on.

Prof Saeid Nahavandi: I am Pro-Vice-Chancellor for defence technology at ISRI engineering and IT research institute which focuses on robotics, haptics, modelling and simulation as solutions to aerospace, automotive, defence, security, logistics and health.

3 key pillars of ISRI are research, development, and commercial readiness. It is more than a research and development organisation and our commercial reach is our main differentiator. Our easy to commercialize research is a great value proposition for both our researchers and clients.

As a Pro-Vice-Chancellor defence technology, I oversee a portfolio of defence and security technology and innovation across Deakin University and then as director providing leadership for over 1000 researchers with multidisciplinary skills to provide practical solutions to real-world problems and develop innovative products and services.

DQ: What is the impact of your research on day to day lives.

Prof Saeid Nahavandi: Distinctive translational research and innovation are integrating haptics into robots and virtual reality and helping increase their stability and enable users to touch and feel remote and virtual objects and perceive associated attributes like texture and hardness and engage in an immersive virtual environment. 

DQ: Haptics Lab at Deakin was the first in Australia and how did that haptics technology change the whole robotics application to where it is today?

Prof Saeid Nahavandi: That Haptics Lab was funded by one of my first Australian Research Council funding and we furnished our lab with more than 45 haptic devices and created physics engine haptics models and applied them to the automotive industry, the medical field for remote sonography and training docs and later applied that technology combined with robots creating world-first haptically enabled minimally invasive surgical system. 

We also tried to fill the knowledge and tech gap in haptics which is called multiport haptics and patented it worldwide and applied it to different domains. 

DQ: Tell us about Ozbot. 

Prof Saeid Nahavandi: We looked at technology to develop commercial robots that are low cost and capable of carrying a high payload. There was a desperate need for us to work in industrial robots with companies such as Ford, Nissan applying technology in terms of automation to the robotic arm and translating them into form, factors and shapes and achieving the different types of capabilities in a mobile platform. This is how Ozbot was born. Ozbot means Ozzie robot and we managed to get it into service for many years.

DQ: Research collaborations in Australia and internationally

Prof Saeid Nahavandi: We are collaborating with a group of 8 universities in Australia to carry out joint research and publications. We have all sorts of collaborations with top universities of the world, namely Harvard, Stanford, Imperial College and National University Singapore. We have also collaborated with several universities in India like IIT Kanpur and IIT Delhi. We’ve worked as a consultant to the jet propulsion lab at NASA and in recent times we started collaborations with Europe like the German space agency and German aerospace centre (DLR).

DQ: What made you move into defence/space technology and tell us more about your contributions.

Prof Saeid Nahavandi: Early on, I realized that there is a desperate need both in the defence and space sector for applications of robotics and it was easy for us to move into that sector but looking back it has taken many years. We learnt that having the capability is one thing but being able to understand the language and culture and workings of defence is something else.

I started that journey at Deakin University in 2004 and slowly got students and staff, identified capability gaps and needs in defence and started developing tech to address them. 

As we continued working with the Air Force, we identified that the capability gap in Australia and the need for a human centrifuge. High-G Centrifuge Systems provide a safe and controllable environment for G motion fields required for fighter pilots’ training. Lacking an operational Human Centrifuge System in Australia, IISRI designed and built a low-cost High-G Centrifuge System, named Cyclone.

DQ: How does the universal motion simulators help in defence in terms of training? 

Prof Saeid Nahavandi: In terms of universal motion simulator technology, they were expensive and unreliable. The idea I had was that we had robots and then I had in-depth knowledge of the application of industrial robots in the automotive sector. 

I thought if we put the two together, we can create something new and identify a robot that could carry a large load of up to one tonne and combine Virtual Reality by having input devices like the steering wheel. The UMS is the first haptically-enabled robot-based motion simulator in the world. It is a motion simulator that gives a realistic sense of motion without causing simulator sickness. The UMS allows the subject to experience situations in their entirety including a full range of motion that can be adjusted to suit many forms of training which are not capable. 

One of the applications of the Universal Motion Simulator is in the automotive industry to train drivers to drive in different road conditions.  Another application is if we can create the rigour dynamics model and use the simulator as a virtual prototype and for testing future vehicle variants and we can reduce the time for design to prototype.

DQ: Do you have any plans of providing technology to the Indian defence system? 

Prof Saeid Nahavandi: Anything is possible, when we talk about defence there are different layers of technology and sensitive care with technology. All of that aside, they have to be handled appropriately in the right way. So in terms of capability, what we can offer as Deakin researchers and staff there is a huge potential. 

DQ: Do all your research at Deakin help produce future graduates and does the knowledge and skill development at ISRI make them industry-ready? 

Prof Saeid Nahavandi: My philosophy is to take fundamentals and build them up to life. We are producing engineering scientists and how we are equipping them and whether they have the right skillsets is for the industry to decide. I am excited because when it comes to the industrial problems no matter the sector, if you look at the problem and try to see if I can apply the fundamentals and theories that I have learnt and embraced to come up with solutions, and my students and colleagues at ISRI school of engineering do the same and it will help our students how to apply theory to real-world problems to provide a value proposition to the industry, this is very important and if we can achieve that we can do something incredible. Wherever I have worked there were multiple jobs, so the problem for our researchers is which one to take. 

DQ: Tell us a little bit about the potential to train Indian ISRI candidates and train them for the industry.

Prof Saeid Nahavandi: We can reach out to industry and encourage people to consider industry-based problems and to turn them into masters and PhD and then we can jointly supervise with an industry partner to give value proposition to India, and also upskill their workforce. The other one is that we can also work with research and teaching organisations upskilling masters and PhD students and making them job-ready, because job readiness is so important.

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