Mark Plecnik receives NSF CAREER Award for new mathematical framework for designing mechanisms in robotics

Mark Plecnik, assistant professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering, has received the National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) award. The CAREER award is NSF’s most prestigious program in support of young faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education.

Plecnik researches the role of computation to design novel machine geometries for use as robots and other mechanical devices. He believes computation is key to advancing the practice of mechanical design beyond the limits of human ingenuity. 

His CAREER project, “The Foundations of Ellipsoid Synthesis Theory,” aims to found a new mathematical framework for designing how structures used in robotics mechanically interact with the world.

During design, it is common for roboticists to first choose a robot’s mechanical structure, then visualize how it would transmit forces using certain elliptical shapes. Plecnik intends to flip this process. That is, he wants to empower roboticists to first decide the forces they need to exert, then let a computer algorithm determine what the mechanical structure should be. 

The development of these algorithms would have an immediate practical impact not only on specifications on force but also on a robot’s speed, backdrivability, stiffness, sensitivity, and power characteristics. 

The design methodology emerging from this project will have many applications in robotics (rehabilitation robots, industrial robots) actuated prosthetics, and mechanisms used for force sensing during laparoscopic surgery.

— College of Engineering