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September, 2017

‘Green Industries’ Now Drive Connecticut Agriculture

September 29, 2017 – Combined Reports – UConn Communications

Agriculture contributes 21,000 jobs and $800 million to the state's economy, according to a report released today. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Agriculture contributes 21,000 jobs and $800 million to the state’s economy, according to a report released today. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Unlike the rest of the nation, Connecticut agriculture is not dominated by field crops, but instead by ‘green industries’ including nurseries and greenhouses, floriculture, sod production, egg and poultry production, and dairy farming.

Those make up the largest sectors in the state’s $4 billion sales, according to a new study by the University of Connecticut’s Zwick Center for Food and Resource Policy, which offers the most comprehensive assessment of the total value of agriculture’s contribution to the state’s economy since an initial review in 2010.

In fact, the greenhouse and nursery sector alone accounts for nearly half of the state’s agricultural product sales, according to the report.

Agriculture is a vital sector in Connecticut’s economy, say the researchers. Farmland accounts for 440,000 acres – slightly more than 13 percent of the state’s 3.2 million acres – and Connecticut’s 4,916 farms rank first in New England in terms of market value per farm and per acre.

Overall, agriculture provides more than 21,000 jobs and $800 million in wages to the state’s economy. On a per capita basis, the agricultural industry generates approximately $1,100 in sales per Connecticut resident.

And, because the agricultural industry purchases goods and services from other industries and hires local labor, its economic impact cascades throughout the state.

“Destinations such as wineries, pick-your-own orchards, pumpkin patches, and corn mazes help to attract tourists,” says lead author Rigoberto Lopez, director of the Zwick Center. “Farmers’ markets, farm stands, and farm-to-table events can boost sales for area business.”

A major goal of the study is to increase awareness about the larger role the agricultural industry plays in the state’s economy and to provide quantitative information for decision making and resource allocation directed at the agricultural industries, says Lopez.

In order to quantify the economic impact of agriculture on the state, UConn researchers had to first identify what was being counted. The study defined the agricultural industry “as encompassing crop and livestock production, forest products, and the processing of the state’s agricultural production.”

The study used three models of the Connecticut economy to capture the scope of the agricultural industry, its links to the rest of the state economy, and to assess its contribution to statewide output and jobs. Some highlights of the study include:

Each dollar in sales generated by the agricultural industry creates an additional dollar worth of economic activity statewide.
The total economic impact of agricultural and forest production to the gross state product was approximately $2 billion, while the impact of the agricultural processing sector was also about $2 billion, with more than half coming from dairy processing.
The agricultural production sector generates between 13 and 19 jobs per million dollars in sales, more than twice the number of jobs generated by agricultural processing.
The highest job creators per million dollars in sales are support activities for agriculture, greenhouse, nursery and floriculture; tobacco farming; animal production; and commercial fishing.
More than 20,000 of 2.2 million jobs (0.9 percent) in Connecticut were held by people employed directly or indirectly in agriculture during 2015. Agricultural and forest production activities generated two-thirds of those jobs or approximately 14,000, while primary agricultural processing activities added another 7,000.
The sectors that grew the most between 2007 and 2015 include value added and specialty crops, including wineries, vegetable and fruit farming, fluid milk manufacturing, egg production, and aquaculture.
Some sectors have seen a decline between 2007 and 2015, including tobacco farming, commercial (wild-caught) fishing, and commercial logging.

Along with the impact of sales, employment, and wages, the agricultural industry provides significant non-market social benefits and ecosystem services whose estimation was beyond the scope of the study, notes Lopez.

Specifically excluded were secondary sectors such as landscaping, groundskeeping, bakeries, and distilling, which although economically important, would overstate the projected output and job impacts attributable directly to the state’s agriculture.

In addition, the study did not include the value of ecosystem services, scenic views, and other non-market social benefits attributable directly to the state’s agriculture, but does provide some preliminary estimates of the impact of agro-tourism and carbon sequestration attributable to Connecticut’s farmland.

In addition to Lopez, the authors included: from Zwick Center, Rebecca Boehm, postdoctoral fellow, and Marcela Pineda, student intern; from the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis, Peter Gunther, senior research fellow, and Fred Carstensen, director.

The study was supported by the UConn’s Department of Cooperative Extension within the College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources. It was reviewed by the Connecticut Department of Agriculture and the Connecticut Farm Bureau.

2,000-year-old Ship Found Intact by UConn Expert, Colleagues

September 25, 2017 – Kenneth Best – UConn Communications

A 3-D re-creation of a Roman galley found on the floor of the Black Sea. (Black Sea MAP)

A 3-D re-creation of a Roman galley found on the floor of the Black Sea. (Black Sea MAP)

Twenty shipwrecks from the 4th and 5th centuries B.C., have been discovered by a team of international scientists, co-directed by a University of Connecticut nautical archaeologist.

The new discoveries bring the total number of wrecks found by the team to more than 60 since the project began in 2015. Recorded with the latest robotic laser scanning, acoustic, and photogrammetric techniques, they represent an unbroken pattern of trade and exchange, warfare, and communication that reaches back into prehistory.

“This is history in the making unfolding before us,” said Kroum Batchvarov, an associate professor of anthropology based at UConn’s Avery Point campus, whose specialty is nautical archaeology. “We have never seen anything like this before.”

The archaeologists are in the role of Sherlock Holmes. We are gathering the clues to figure out what happened.
— Kroum Batchvarov

Batchvarov is a leader on the three-year Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project (MAP), described as one of the largest maritime archaeological expeditions ever undertaken.

Over the past three field seasons, the team has been investigating the changes in the ancient environment of the Black Sea region, including the impact of sea level change during the last glacial cycle as its primary mission. The announcement of the shipwreck discoveries last fall made headlines worldwide.

The earliest wreck found so far is from the Classical period, from around the 5th to 4th century B.C., said Jonathan Adams, director of the University of Southampton’s Centre for Maritime Archaeology and principal investigator of the scientific team. Ships also have been found from the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman periods, spanning two and a half millennia.

“This assemblage must comprise one of the finest underwater museums of ships and seafaring in the world,” he added.

Some of the wrecks have survived in “incredible condition” because of the anoxic conditions of the Black Sea – the lack of oxygen – below a certain depth, Adams says. Anoxic waters do not support the wood-eating sea creature known as Teredo navalis, or the naval shipworm, which causes the decay of wrecked wooden vessels elsewhere in the world. In the Black Sea, ships lie hundreds or thousands of meters deep with their masts still standing, rudders in place, cargoes of amphorae and ship’s fittings lying on deck, with carvings and tool marks as distinct as the day they were made by the shipwrights. Many of the ships show structural features, fittings, and equipment that are only known from iconography or written descriptions but never seen until now.

“The archaeologists are in the role of Sherlock Holmes. We are gathering the clues to figure out what happened,” says Batchvarov. “What we learn about the past, from the past, is applicable to modern times.”

Batchvarov says an entire 2,000-year-old Roman ship found buried in the seabed with its mast, tillers, and rope still intact is “an incredible find, the first of its kind ever.”

The Black Sea MAP is completing its final phase of fieldwork, having excavated the remains of an early Bronze Age settlement at Ropotamo in Bulgaria near the ancient shoreline when the sea level was much lower than today. As the waters rose, the settlement was abandoned, and now the remains of house timbers, hearths, and ceramics lie 2.5 meters below the seabed.

The valley in which the village was located became a sheltered bay visited by Greek colonists of the Archaic period, then a harbor for early Byzantine seafarers, and finally an anchorage used by the Ottomans.

The team has also continued its survey work in deep water up to 50 kilometers offshore using Surveyor Interceptor, a revolutionary remotely operated robotic vehicle, to carry out geophysical surveys along thousands of kilometers, revealing former land surfaces buried deep below the seabed and sampling them by extracting sediment cores up to 12 meters in length.

Filmmakers have documented the discoveries of each voyage, including extraordinary underwater footage of the wrecks, to provide international audiences with unique insight into the history of the Black Sea.

New Lab Opens to Test Human Performance Limits in Heat

September 22, 2017 – Colin Poitras – UConn Communications

Ryan Curtis, KSI associate director of athlete performance and safety, runs on a treadmill at the Mission Heat Lab at the Korey Stringer Institute at Gampel Pavilion on Sept. 21, 2017. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Ryan Curtis, KSI associate director of athlete performance and safety, runs on a treadmill at the Mission Heat Lab at the Korey Stringer Institute at Gampel Pavilion on Sept. 21, 2017. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

UConn’s Korey Stringer Institute and MISSION have teamed up to open one of the nation’s premier academic heat research labs at the University of Connecticut’s main campus in Storrs.

Outfitted with the latest in climate control technologies and human performance monitoring systems, the MISSION Heat Lab at the Korey Stringer Institute will allow researchers to explore new ways to improve human performance, endurance, and safety in the heat.

“Exertional heat stroke is a constant concern for athletes, active military personnel, laborers, and others who are called on to perform in hot conditions,” says UConn professor Douglas Casa, a national expert on heat stroke and chief executive officer of the Korey Stringer Institute. “This lab will increase our understanding of heat illness and how body temperature impacts performance. It will also help us develop better methods for cooling, which is an important part of our commitment to keeping athletes, warfighters, and laborers safe.”

The partnership between the Korey Stringer Institute and MISSION is a natural one. Named after a Minnesota Vikings lineman who died from exertional heat stroke in 2001, the Korey Stringer Institute (KSI) is one of the nation’s leading sports safety research and advocacy organizations specializing in heat illness research. MISSION is a pioneer in the development of temperature-controlling technologies for athletic and active accessories and gear. Co-founded by some of the world’s greatest athletes including Serena Williams, Dwyane Wade, Carli Lloyd, and David Villa in 2009, MISSION is dedicated to providing athletes, workers, and active individuals at all levels with solutions to maximize performance and optimize safety in the heat.

The MISSION Heat Lab at UConn features a first-of-its-kind cooling area that will allow researchers to monitor how the human body responds to different cooling treatments after experiencing heat-related stress and conditions.

“Rooted in sports and science, MISSION works with professional athletes, scientists, and medical doctors to deliver game-changing temperature-control technologies that enhance performance, safety, and comfort,” says Josh Shaw, founder and CEO of MISSION. “Since 2014, we’ve been working hand-in-hand with the KSI, and we are thrilled to sponsor the new state-of-the-art MISSION Heat Lab. For the next 10 years, the MISSION Heat Lab will set new standards in research, development, and testing to combat heat-related illness for athletes, workers, military, and active individuals – globally. As the market leader for cooling technologies, the new MISSION Heat Lab is yet another testament to our commitment to combatting the dangerous effects on everyone who lives, works, and plays in the heat.”

Located within UConn’s Gampel Pavilion sports arena, the MISSION Heat Lab is capable of creating a broad range of environmental conditions. High-end exercise bikes and treadmills along with advanced temperature controls will allow researchers to mimic specific environments for races, competitions, and events – from a hilly 10K New England road race on a cloudy 70 degree day with 40 percent humidity to a stifling hours-long military march in 100 degree heat under hot sun with 90 percent humidity. Radiant heat panels being installed later this year will further enhance lab simulations.

A full suite of continuous physiological monitoring systems will capture a test subject’s heart rate, internal temperature, skin temperature, and other vital signs hundreds of times per second. The test chamber also includes restroom facilities and resting areas designed to allow test subjects to remain in a designated environment for hours at a time without the need for outside breaks that might skew data regarding how their body is reacting to conditions.

Private donations supported the lab’s creation. One of those donors was Carole Knighton, whose son Hunter nearly died of exertional heat stroke during a 2014 football practice at the University of Miami. Hunter, whose body temperature was reportedly 109 degrees when he collapsed, spent two weeks on a ventilator in a medically induced coma, but ultimately survived the ordeal.

“This is a cause that is near and dear to my heart,” says Knighton, who lives in Fort Myers, Florida. “If it were not for the Korey Stringer Institute, my son would not be where he is today.”

With a desire to return to football, Hunter, now 23, visited the Korey Stringer Institute on several occasions to have his heat tolerance tested. In the process, he and his family learned a lot about heat illness and how it can be avoided. Winner of the 2015 Brian Piccolo Award for being the ”most courageous” football player in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Hunter now plays for Tulane.

Another donor, Jonny Class of Maryland, shares a similar story. His son, Gavin, suffered an exertional heat stroke during a Towson University football practice in 2013. Like Hunter, Gavin was hospitalized as his liver and other organs began to fail. His heart stopped and he was resuscitated, beginning what was to be a very long road to recovery that included a liver transplant. And like Hunter, Gavin was subsequently tested at the Korey Stringer Institute to make sure his body was ready to return to football.

“With their help, he was able to return to all physical activities and is now able to lead a normal life,” says Jonny Class, Gavin’s father. “The knowledge we learned from KSI was amazing. We have since started a foundation, YOLT (You Only Live Twice) to help raise awareness about heat illness and the importance of organ donation.”

University officials say the new MISSION lab will be a strong addition to UConn’s nationally renowned kinesiology program.

“This new state-of-the art lab will be one of very few such facilities in the U.S., and has some design elements that make it stand alone,” says Cameron Faustman, interim dean for UConn’s College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources, which houses the program. “We are confident it will attract even more research funding, research scholars, and students to our campus. The cost of this initiative has been met with contributions from the University, college, department, private donors, and companies. This speaks not only to the recognized need for the types of research that this facility will support, but also to the confidence that many others have in our faculty members.”

The MISSION Heat Lab will be available for use by outside companies and organizations to maximize research opportunities in heat safety awareness, as well as other areas of temperature-related studies.

Science in Seconds: Navigating the Brain with 3-D Print-out

September 20, 2017 – Elizabeth Caron – UConn Communications

Go inside microbiome startup Shoreline Biome in the latest episode of Inside UConn TIP

Research Award Roundup September 2017

September 14, 2017 – Chris DeFrancesco – School of Medicine and Dental Medicine

Guided by Ephraim Trakhtenberg, postdoctoral fellow Juhwan Kim demonstrates microscope-assisted surgery to master's student Muhammad Sajid (background), undergrad Kathleen Renna, and M.D.-Ph.D. student Bruce Rheaume. (Photo by Ethan Giorgetti)

Guided by Ephraim Trakhtenberg, postdoctoral fellow Juhwan Kim demonstrates microscope-assisted surgery to master’s student Muhammad Sajid (background), undergrad Kathleen Renna, and M.D.-Ph.D. student Bruce Rheaume. (Photo by Ethan Giorgetti)

Ephraim Trakhtenberg, assistant professor of neuroscience, won an Interstellar Initiative honor from the New York Academy of Sciences and the Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development. Most recently he was awarded “First Place – Outstanding Early Career Investigator Team Presentation in Neurocience.” In March he and collaborator Kumiko Hayashi of Tohoku University in Japan won first place for a research solution proposal in the field of neuroscience. Now only in his second year on the UConn Health faculty, Trakhtenberg already has a research grant by the BrightFocus Foundation and a grant from the Connecticut Institute for the Brain and Cognitive Sciences, in collaboration with Steven Crocker, associate professor of neuroscience, to his credit.He mentors undergraduates, medical students, master’s students, Ph.D. students, and postdoctoral fellows in his lab, which focuses on regeneration of central nervous system circuits that have been damaged.

Dr. Augustus Mazzocca, director of the UConn Musculoskeletal Institute, has been presented with the 2017 Champion of Yes Prestigious Excellence in Medicine Award by the Arthritis Foundation.

A study of a surgical technique to restore shoulder joint stability known as the “J-bone graft” conducted at UConn Health under the leadership of then sports medicine research fellow Dr. Leo Pauzenberger has been honored by the world’s largest arthroscopy society. The Society for Arthroscopy and Joint Surgery presented its biannual Medi Award for exceptional research on restoration of joint function to Pauzenberger at its annual congress in Munich earlier this month. Collaborating with UConn Health scientists during his time as a sports medicine research fellow with Mozzacca in 2015 and 2016, Pauzenberger was lead author of the article, which was published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine.

Dr. Ivo Kalajzic, an associate professor of reconstructive sciences, is principal investigator of a federal research grant that focuses on understanding the biological processes involved in mending broken bones (fractures). He is studying the role of the Notch signaling pathway in an effort to identify components that could be manipulated to accelerate fracture healing. Kalajzic’s lab will further explore the role of Notch receptors in fracture repair.

UConn spin-off gets stem cell patent for autoimmune diseases

September 13, 2017

John Stearns

ImStem Biotechnology Inc. and the University of Connecticut today announced that a joint patent was recently issued for human embryonic stem cell technology being used by ImStem to develop therapies for autoimmune diseases, with an initial focus on Multiple Sclerosis.

The company, spun out of the UConn Stem Cell Core Lab, was formed to commercialize the technologies developed by Dr. Ren He Xu, the former director of the UConn Stem Cell Core, and his then postdoc, Dr. Xiaofang Wang. Wang now leads the company as its chief technology officer with CEO Dr. Michael Men.

In 2010, Xu was one of few researchers to derive new stem cell lines when he announced that four UConn lines had been approved for use in federally funded research and added to the National Stem Cell Registry by the National Institutes of Health, according UConn. Both ImStem and its enabling research had been funded by the state of Connecticut Stem Cell Grant program.

Today, ImStem operates through private capital raised by its founders and is located at the UConn Technology Incubation Program (TIP) in Farmington.

While ImStem has proven its T-MSC cell therapy protects mice from MS, it is currently working with the FDA on necessary clearances to begin clinical trials next year and has completed FDA required experiments. ImStem believes its technology might address diseases beyond MS, including the company’s next target, Inflammatory Bowel Disease.

Advanced Genomic Testing for Heart Disease by Joint UConn/JAX faculty

Watch NBC CT’s segment on how Dr. J. Travis Hinson, cardiovascular physician-scientist at UConn Health and The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine, is using the power of advanced genomic testing in his laboratory to empower his heart patients and their families. See how Dr. Hinson has helped Peggy Agar and her entire family gain knowledge of their potential genetic risk for cardiomyopathy, a heart muscle disease which is the most common cause of heart failure.

UConn Health’s New 3-D Printed Model Allows Brain Surgeons to Practice

Dr. Charan K. Singh, right, holds a 3-D printed model of arteries and a catheter while speaking with Dr. Clifford Yang at UConn Health. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Dr. Charan K. Singh, right, holds a 3-D printed model of arteries and a catheter while speaking with Dr. Clifford Yang at UConn Health. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

The first time a young surgeon threads a wire through a stroke victim’s chest up through their neck and fishes a blood clot out of their brain may be one of the most harrowing moments in her career. Now, a UConn Health radiologist and a medical physicist have made it easier for her to get some practice first. The team made a life-size model of the arteries that wire must pass through, using brain scans and a 3-D printer. They will make the pattern freely available to any doctor who requests it.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved mechanical thrombectomy – using a wire to pull clots out of the brains of stroke victims – in 2012. A trap at the end of the wire opens like a little snare that captures the clot, which is then dragged out of the patient.

A lot can go wrong on that journey. One of the most dangerous complications is also one of the most likely: another clot can be accidentally knocked loose from the wall of the arteries and get stuck in the heart, the lungs, or elsewhere in the brain. Computer simulations of the procedure exist, but they are prohibitively expensive for many medical schools to purchase. Interventional radiologists and neurosurgeons need to train extensively before they work on a real person.

UConn Health cardiac radiologist Dr. Clifford Yang and medical physicist intern David Brotman knew they could help young doctors feel more comfortable with the mechanics.

“What matters is the ability of the doctor to be confident in guiding the wire,” says Brotman. He and Yang found a brain scan of a patient with typical blood vessel structure and used the scan to design a 3-D model of the blood vessels. Finding a good scan was easy: UConn Health has an immense library from computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of patients. The tough part was converting the data into something a 3-D printer could interpret. Brotman and Yang found and modified publicly available software to do that, and after a couple months of tweaking, they found they could print a true-to-life teaching model of the brain’s major arteries for about $14.

Technically called a brain perfusion phantom, the model is surprisingly delicate. Holding it in your hand brings home just how small the arteries are, even in an adult man. The top arch of the aorta in the chest, big enough to slide an adult’s pinky finger through, connects to the carotid in the neck and then on to the Circle of Willis in the brain, which is no thicker than a fat piece of yarn. The circle has six branches. Each branch supplies blood to one-sixth of the brain. It is in these branches that clots are most likely to get stuck and cause serious damage.

“We are using this model to teach students,” says UConn Health interventional radiologist Dr. Charan Singh. “Obviously, it won’t feel like the human body. But it will improve their knowledge of anatomy, and give them basic technique on how to move the catheter.”

Singh demonstrates how a slight twist can violently flip the catheter, which is dangerous. It could knock off new clots into the bloodstream. The model isn’t perfect – there are several different ways a person’s aorta can be shaped, and the other veins can vary too. But students can get good practice with it, Singh says.

Dr. Ketan Bulsara, UConn’s chief of neurosurgery, also likes the technology. He cautions that individual anatomy varies too much for it to be used as the only training tool to learn mechanical thrombectomy, but says that it could potentially be used to visualize other conditions, such as brain tumors. Surgery for brain tumors has significant lead time, and modeling the tumor in advance could personalize and improve patient care.

Says Bulsara, “Creating these high-level 3-D models customized for individual patients has the potential to significantly improve outcomes and reduce operative times by enhancing surgical planning.”

Teaching Robots to Think

September 13, 2017 – Colin Poitras – UConn Communications

Ashwin Dani, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, demonstrates how the robot can be given a simple task which can be repeated. Sept. 7, 2017. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

Ashwin Dani, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, demonstrates how the robot can be given a simple task which can be repeated. Sept. 7, 2017. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

In a research building in the heart of UConn’s Storrs campus, assistant professor Ashwin Dani is teaching a life-size industrial robot how to think.

Here, on a recent day inside the University’s Robotics and Controls Lab, Dani and a small team of graduate students are showing the humanoid bot how to assemble a simple desk drawer.

The “eyes” on the robot’s face screen look on as two students build the wooden drawer, reaching for different tools on a tabletop as they work together to complete the task.

The robot may not appear intently engaged. But it isn’t missing a thing – or at least that’s what the scientists hope. For inside the robot’s circuitry, its processors are capturing and cataloging all of the humans’ movements through an advanced camera lens and motion sensors embedded into his metallic frame.
Ashwin Dani, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, is developing algorithms and software for robotic manipulation, to improve robots’ interaction with humans. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)
Ashwin Dani, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, is developing algorithms and software for robotic manipulation, to improve robots’ interaction with humans. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

Ultimately, the UConn scientists hope to develop software that will teach industrial robots how to use their sensory inputs to quickly “learn” the various steps for a manufacturing task – such as assembling a drawer or a circuit board – simply by watching their human counterparts do it first.

“We’re trying to move toward human intelligence,” says Dani, the lab’s director and a faculty member in the School of Engineering. “We’re still far from what we want to achieve, but we’re definitely making robots smarter.”

To further enhance robotic intelligence, the UConn team is also working on a series of complex algorithms that will serve as an artificial neural network for the machines, helping robots apply what they see and learn so they can one day assist humans at their jobs, such as assembling pieces of furniture or installing parts on a factory floor. If the process works as intended, these bots, in time, will know an assembly sequence so well, they will be able to anticipate their human partner’s needs and pick up the right tools without being asked – even if the tools are not in the same location as they were when the robots were trained.

This kind of futuristic human-robot interaction – called collaborative robotics – is transforming manufacturing. Industrial robots like the one in Dani’s lab already exist. Although currently, engineers must write intricate computer code for all of the robot’s individual movements or manually adjust the robot’s limbs at each step in a process to program it to perform. Teaching industrial robots to learn manufacturing techniques simply by observing could reduce to minutes a process that currently can take engineers days.
From left back row, Ph.D. students Iman Salehi, Harish Ravichandar, Kyle Hunte, Gang Yao, and seated, Ashwin Dani, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)
From left back row, Ph.D. students Iman Salehi, Harish Ravichandar, Kyle Hunte, Gang Yao, and seated, Ashwin Dani, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

“Here at UConn, we’re developing algorithms that are designed to make robot programming easier and more adaptable,” says Dani. “We are essentially building software that allows a robot to watch these different steps and, through the algorithms we’ve developed, predict what will happen next. If the robot sees the first two or three steps, it can tell us what the next 10 steps are. At that point, it’s basically thinking on its own.”

In recognition of this transformative research, UConn’s Robotics and Controls Lab was recently chosen as one of 40 academic or academic-affiliated research labs supporting the U.S. government’s newly created Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute or ARM. One of the collaborative’s primary goals is to advance robotics and artificial intelligence to maintain American manufacturing competitiveness in the global economy.

“There is a huge need for collaborative robotics in industry,” says Dani. “With advances in artificial intelligence, lots of major companies like United Technologies, Boeing, BMW, and many small and mid-size manufacturers, are moving in this direction.”

The United Technologies Research Center, UTC Aerospace Systems, and ABB US Corporate Research – a leading international supplier of industrial robots and robot software – are also representing Connecticut as part of the new ARM Institute. The institute is led by American Robotics Inc., a nonprofit associated with Carnegie Mellon University.

Connecticut’s and UConn’s contribution to the initiative will be targeted toward advancing robotics in the aerospace and shipbuilding industries, where intelligent, adaptable robots are more in demand because of the industries’ specialized needs.

Joining Dani on the ARM project are UConn Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor Krishna Pattipati, the University’s UTC Professor in Systems Engineering and an expert in smart manufacturing; and assistant professor Liang Zhang, an expert in production systems engineering.

“Robotics, with wide-ranging applications in manufacturing and defense, is a relatively new thrust area for the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering,” says Rajeev Bansal, professor and head of UConn’s electrical and computer engineering department. “Interestingly, our first two faculty hires in the field received their doctorates in mechanical engineering, reflecting the interdisciplinary nature of robotics. With the establishment of the new national Advanced Robotics Manufacturing Institute, both UConn and the ECE department are poised to play a leadership role in this exciting field.”

The aerospace, automotive, and electronics industries are expected to represent 75 percent of all robots used in the country by 2025. One of the goals of the ARM initiative is to increase small manufacturers’ use of robots by 500 percent.

Industrial robots have come a long way since they were first introduced, says Dani, who has worked with some of the country’s leading researchers in learning and adoptive control, and robotics at the University of Florida (Warren Dixon) and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Seth Hutchinson and Soon-Jo Chung). Many of the first factory robots were blind, rudimentary machines that were kept in cages and considered a potential danger to workers as their powerful hydraulic arms whipped back and forth on the assembly line.

Today’s advanced industrial robots are designed to be human-friendly. High-end cameras and elaborate motion sensors allow these robots to “see” and “sense” movement in their environment. Some manufacturers, like Boeing and BMW, already have robots and humans working side-by-side.

Of course, one of the biggest concerns within collaborative robotics is safety.

In response to those concerns, Dani’s team is developing algorithms that will allow industrial robots to quickly process what they see and adjust their movements accordingly when unexpected obstacles – like a human hand – get in their way.

“Traditional robots were very heavy, moved very fast, and were very dangerous,” says Dani. “They were made to do a very specific task, like pick up an object and move it from here to there. But with recent advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and improvements in cameras and sensors, working in close proximity with robots is becoming more and more possible.”

Dani acknowledges the obstacles in his field are formidable. Even with advanced optics, smart industrial robots need to be taught how to distinguish a metal rod from a flexible piece of wiring, and to understand the different physics inherent in each.

Movements that humans take for granted are huge engineering challenges in Dani’s lab. For instance: Inserting a metal rod into a pre-drilled hole is relatively easy. Knowing how to pick up a flexible cable and plug it into a receptacle is another challenge altogether. If the robot grabs the cable too far away from the plug, it will likely flex and bend. Even if the robot grabs the cable properly, it must not only bring the plug to the receptacle but also make sure the plug is oriented properly so it matches the receptacle precisely.

“Perception is always a challenging problem in robotics,” says Dani. “In artificial intelligence, we are essentially teaching the robot to process the different physical phenomena it observes, make sense out of what it sees, and then make the appropriate response.”

Research in UConn’s Robotics and Controls Lab is supported by funding from the U.S. Department of Defense and the UTC Institute of Advanced Systems Engineering. More detailed information about this research being conducted at UConn, including peer-reviewed article citations documenting the research, can be found here. Dani and graduate student Harish Ravichandar also have two patents pending on aspects of this research: “Early Prediction of an Intention of a User’s Actions,” Serial #15/659,827, and “Skill Transfer From a Person to a Robot,” Serial #15/659,881.