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The Amazing Undergrads of Summer

I've often said that one of the best things about being at Harvard is the students. The undergrads in particular are really out-of-this-world, needle-goes-to-eleven, scary smart. (There's no way I would have ever managed to get into Harvard as an undergrad.) I also love getting undergrads involved in research, and have had some great experiences. Some of my former students have gone off to do PhDs at Berkeley, Stanford, and MIT, off to medical and business school, to work at Microsoft, Amazon, and Google. Others have started little companies, like Facebook. I'm really proud of the students that have passed through my research lab and my classes.

But the batch of undergrads I'm working with this summer are off the charts in so many ways. I'm so excited about what they're doing I feel like I have to brag a little.

Most of them are working on the RoboBees project. In case you haven't heard, this project is Sean Hannity's #1 waste of government stimulus money, and our goal is to build a colony of micro-sized robotic bees. We have a bunch of undergrads involved this summer on a wide range of projects. The last two weeks, I asked them to each give 5-10 minute updates to the group on their status, and expected most of them to say that they hadn't done very much yet. I was totally blown away that each and every one of them has already done more than we expected them to get done in the entire summer. They are kicking total ass. In no particular order:

Matt Chartier '12 is studying the use of RoboBees for exploring underground environments, like mines and collapsed buildings. He's put together a very nice subterranean environment generator for our RoboBees simulator -- it generates very realistic mine tunnels and shafts -- and is looking at different sensors for detecting warm bodies in an underground setting.

Diana Cai '13 has developed a 3D visualization environment for the simulator, by hooking up Java3D and the JBullet physics engine. This thing is sweet -- we can watch the simulated bees fly through the environment, pan the view angle, and change a bunch of other parameters. This is going to be one of the most important tools for this project and Diana has knocked it out of the park. Check out the below movie for an example of it in action.

Lucia Mocz '13 is developing a simulation of the optical flow sensors that we plan to use on the RoboBees platform. Optical flow will allow the RoboBees to navigate, avoid obstacles, and more, and now we can explore how effectively these sensors enable closed-loop control. The last time I talked with Lucia she was geeking out on tuning the gains for her PID control loop for hover control. Keep in mind she just finished her freshman year at Harvard -- I didn't even know what a PID control loop was until grad school!

Peter Bailis '11 is cranking on getting our micro-helicopter testbed up and running, writing TinyOS code to control the sensors, motors, and servos, and making it possible to control a swarm of helis via a Python API from a PC. He's also working on the new distributed OS that we're developing for RoboBees (all very top secret stuff!). Here's a little video of one of our helis taking off and landing (and not crashing) using Peter's code. Today -- one helicopter taking off. Tomorrow -- world domination:

Rose Cao '11 is exploring the use of harmonic radar for tracking RoboBees in the field. The idea is to outfit each bee with a lightweight transponder that reflects radar at a specific frequency which we can detect. Of course, we also need to worry about disambiguating multiple bees which could be done by controlling their flight patterns. Rose also gave the funniest and most creative PowerPoint presentation I've seen in a long time!

Neena Kamath '11 and Noah Olsman '12 (a student at USC, here on the RoboBees REU program) are working with Radhika Nagpal on algorithms for crop pollination, exploring a wide range of themes including random walks, Levy flight patterns, adaptive gradients, and energy awareness. This stuff is super fun and highlights the power of a large colony of RoboBees working together.

Finally, a shout out to my non-RoboBee student, Thomas Buckley '12, who is working on integrating our Mercury wearable sensor platform with LabView to make it possible for non-experts to program and tune the sensor network in different clinical settings. No more hacking NesC code just to change the sampling parameters!

All of these great students are supported by the National Science Foundation, National Instruments, and Harvard's PRISE program for undergraduate research. Thanks to all of them for their support!


  1. Dr. Welsh, you have some of the most talented students today. Reading through this I can also feel your passionate in nurturing them. Thank you so much.
    –a proud dad
    p.s. I’ll see if my ARRA project on Arctic Ocean CO2 research is in Hannity’ list.


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