Fascination with robots takes accomplished grad to Philadelphia
Imagine robots interacting in every aspect of our daily lives — a human-sized robot assisting us with mundane chores, an exoskeleton helping a physically impaired person up the stairs, or a printer-sized robot serving as a desktop manufacturing plant.
Mechanical engineering student Gavin Kenneally is convinced this future is just around the corner. He is on his way to a graduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania, with a full scholarship, to help make it a reality.
“It is a really exciting time in robotics. There’s a parallel to PCs and the Internet,” he says, pointing out that 40 years ago, computers were considered the exclusive domain of academia and the military. At the time, no one imagined that everyone would be carrying powerful computing ability in a pocket or purse.
The accomplished graduate earned the Concordia Medal from the Concordia University Alumni Association for his demonstrated leadership both in and outside the classroom. After delivering the valedictory address to his class this week, Kenneally will pursue his interest in biologically influenced robots in Philadelphia. He will focus on robots with legs, capable of a greater range of mobility than can be navigated by wheels. They will be useful on hilly or marshy terrains or in communities with few paved roads.
“Nature is currently one of the great inspirations for technology,” he believes, explaining that biomimetic robots are conceptualized by studying plants and animals, and adapting their movements to give us new ways of approaching our own challenges. Kenneally uses both mechanical and electrical engineering principles to construct them, along with the controls required for them to operate.
He became fascinated with robots in high school when he was the captain of a team that competed in the CRC Robotics Competition. In his first year at Concordia, he spent the summer working in the lab of mechanical engineering Associate Professor Paula Wood-Adams. Always ready to devise new solutions for existing challenges, he invented and built several small apparatuses to facilitate the work, one worthy enough to be considered for a patent.
Through Wood-Adams, he met Luis Rodrigues, an electrical engineering associate professor at Concordia, who supervised Kenneally’s next summer internship, building a robotic suspension vehicle. The vehicle adjusts its wheel-basetrack width to maintain stability when moving at high speeds — a function Kenneally adapted from the way cheetahs navigate corners on the run.
“That’s the fantastic thing about Concordia for me: there were so many opportunities and possibilities,” he says of the freedom he was given to develop his own projects. Those projects put him in touch with other graduate students and professors in the field, which eventually led him to the University of Pennsylvania.
“I think that a very important aspect of any field is to look back and acknowledge what got you there, and try to create similar opportunities for others,” says Kenneally.
As a member of the university’s Garnet Key Society, he developed such possibilities for elementary school children in the nearby First Nations community of Kahnawake. He modified various mechatronic components so that the students could create their own robots. “They surprised me quite a few times and built things that were entirely unexpected.”
It seems likely his own supervisors will soon be saying the same of him.
• Read about more 2012 Great Grads in the Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science
• Mechanical and Industrial Engineering
• Electrical and Computer Engineering
• CRC Robotics
• Gavin Kenneally at TEDxConcordia