An art professor and a visual communication design professor are collaborating with the Mechanical Engineering Department to create 3-D printed body panels (not shown) for the humanoid ESCHER robot, March 1, 2017.

Virginia Tech’s Visual Arts Department and Engineering Department have been joining forces to design ESCHER, a firefighting robot.

ESCHER was originally created at the beginning of 2015 in the Terrestrial Robotics Engineering and Controls Laboratory. ESCHER is short for Electronic Series Compliant Humanoid for Emergency Response.

“The special application for this project is the idea that ESCHER could go on naval ships and fight fires and go places that would normally be hazardous to humans,” said Meaghan Dee, assistant professor and chair of Visual Communications. “If you think of something like the Fukushima Disaster, you could have just sent in a robot, and that’s what these emergency robots are designed to do.”

In late 2015, ESCHER competed in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) challenge, led by Professor Tomonari Furukawa, Associate Professor Alexander Leonessa and Affiliate Professor Dr. Brian Lattimer. The competition tests a robot's ability to perform complicated tasks in a mock disaster scenario.

“ESCHER is one of the lightest-weight, low-noise and longest run-time, full-size humanoids in the challenge,” Lattimer explained to VT News before the competition.

ESCHER is a full-size robot standing at 5 feet and 10 inches and weighing roughly 165 pounds. It’s programmed with a walking and balancing algorithm that allows it to move across terrain and react to disturbances.

“There’s actually studies that show the more a human likes the appearance of a robot, the nicer they will treat it. You’d want it to be familiar, but appropriate. You’d want it to feel like a firefighting robot.”
Meaghan Dee
assistant professor and chair of Visual Communications 

Recently, a team of artists and engineers have been collaborating to create high resistance paneling for ESCHER’s exterior that will allow it to withstand extreme heat, impact and water. The team received a grant of $25,000 from The Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT) for the protective paneling, which they’ve been using to complete color, form and brand studies to improve the exterior appearance of ESCHER.

According to the website, the primary purpose of the body paneling is to “promote familiarity with the human workers it interacts with on the job” as well as provide “environmental protection, impact resistance to vulnerable elements and high visibility.”

In addition to Lattimer and Dee, the exterior paneling team consists of Sam Blanchard, assistant professor of studio art at the School of Visual Arts, and Phat Nguyen, a graduate student in Creative Technologies program at Virginia Tech. Graham Day was also a main contributor to the paneling. Their backgrounds range from working on 3D interactive sculptures to designing, fielding and fabricating robots.

The ESCHER artists and engineers also contributed to making an effective exterior paneling that was visually appealing. They had to ensure the robot would be visually appealing and comfortable for humans to work with.

“There’s actually studies that show the more a human likes the appearance of a robot, the nicer they will treat it,” Dee said. “You’d want it to be familiar, but appropriate. You’d want it to feel like a firefighting robot.”

The team had to design different materials that could potentially serve as protective paneling, as well as test them for their fall and impact resistance.

Once the initial research was complete, they began working with graduate students at Virginia Tech in creative technologies.

The team looked at car and motorcycle designs to create mood boards and studied color theory research to determine which colors would be most appropriate for a firefighting robot. They decided on naval colors and added orange to not only represent hazard, but also Virginia Tech.

The paneling prototypes were created using Virginia Tech’s 3D printers and printers from outside manufacturers. The 3D printing allowed for more alterations and mistakes, as in the case of error the team could simply print a new panel.

To produce the actual paneling for the ESCHER robot, the team will work with advanced material company NanoSonic Inc., and with Virginia Tech’s fashion department to produce resistant fabrics, on top of which the robot’s hard panels would be bolted.

“One reason I love working at Virginia Tech is there are opportunities for things I didn’t even think I would be doing,” Dee said of her experience with the ESCHER robot. “I really like the interdisciplinary collaboration that’s possible here. I think this was really an exemplary project of art coming together with technology. I’ve really enjoyed being a part of it, and I think this a good showcase of the potential our school has.”

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