Meet the Scientists: Aaron O’Toole

Meet the Scientists is an Armed with Science segment highlighting the men and women working in the government realms of science, technology, research and development.  The greatest minds working on the greatest developments of our time.  If you have someone you’d like AWS to highlight for this segment, email Jessica L. Tozer at science@dma.mil.

O'Toole was recognized for his work in the EOD robotics field, by developing a novel method for enhancing semi-autonomous tele-operation with a high degree of freedom, highly dexterous, dual-arm manipulators.  (U.S. Navy photo by Matthew Poynor/Released)

O’Toole was recognized for his work in the EOD robotics field, by developing a novel method for enhancing semi-autonomous tele-operation with a high degree of freedom, highly dexterous, dual-arm manipulators. (U.S. Navy photo by Matthew Poynor/Released)

WHO: Aaron O’Toole.  Originally from the small town of Kingston, Tennessee.  Graduated from Tennessee Tech University with a masters in mechanical engineering.

TITLE: Robotics Engineer with Naval Surface Warfare Center Indian Head Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technology Division, or NSWC IHEODTD.

MISSION: To do research and development on EOD robots, which some people call bomb disposal robots.  His job consists of mainly two things: to build new tools for existing robots that are already fielded, and to do research and development for the next generation of robots.

Aaron O’Toole received the Dr. Delores M. Etter Award for Top Engineers in 2013 for his work in the EOD robotics field.  His unique approach enables robot operators to select an item from a remote video feed, after which, the system autonomously commands the robotic arm to move its gripper to the designated object.

This system is designed specifically with future EOD robots in mind, which will possess manipulators that mimic human arm and hand movement.

Tell me a little bit about yourself and your position.

“I do research and development on EOD robots, which some people call bomb disposal robots.  What we do consists of mainly two things. We’re building new tools for existing robots that are already fielded, and we’re also doing research and development for the next generation of robots.”

Aaron O'Toole, received the Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Research, Development, and Acquisition), Dr. Delores M. Etter Award for Top Engineers for 2013. (U.S. Navy photo/Released)

Aaron O’Toole and his wife, Emily, with the Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Research, Development, and Acquisition), Dr. Delores M. Etter Award for Top Engineers for 2013. (U.S. Navy photo/Released)

What does it mean to you to be recognized as a top engineer for your work in the EOD robotics field?

“It’s really a great honor.  I love working with robots, even outside of work.  I do it a lot, at home, in my spare time.  It’s a great hobby, and it’s great to apply skills on the topic that I’m passionate about.  To be able to do that with something as important as EOD robots and recognized for that work is really just awesome.”

Did you just casually mention that you have robots in your house?

*laughs* “Yeah, I do!  My nephews and nieces are always wanting me to build them stuff.”

You developed a novel method for enhancing semi-autonomous tele-operation for high degree of freedom, highly dexterous, dual arm manipulators.  So basically, you’re giving robots more freedom of movement, correct?

“An easy way to put it is: it’s a system that allows a robot to move its hand to an object that an operator selects through a video feed.  So really it’s about making it easy for the operator to tell the robot what he or she wants, and for the robot to be able to carry it out.”

Why do you think it’s important to provide robotics with more fluid motions and flexible capabilities?

“Robotics is a pretty vast field, and there’s a lot of sub-topics within robotics.  Specifically with EOD robots, the operators are in high-stress situations, so you really want to make systems that are easy to use, intuitive, and don’t take a lot of concentration because they’ve got a lot of stuff going on while they’re operating the robot.”

Do you see this method as something that you can use to help grow and develop technologies and capabilities within the robotics community?

“There are more advanced systems out there that do more advanced behaviors.  This system only moves the hand to the object you want to pick up.  While there are people working on systems that actually grab the object, it’s still early research.  It works in a lab and in controlled environments, but once you get out in the world, in a war zone, some of the assumptions that they make during development aren’t valid.”

“We needed a system that was ready to go and ready to be used without failures.  So there’s more work to come and I think within the next five years we will see systems that make great strides beyond what we do here now.”

In your own words, what is it about this research and development that makes it so significant to the military?

“For me, the main thing is that it reduces the amount of concentration that the operator needs to give to the robot.  When I’m using a robot at our testing facility, it’s pretty hard.  When you think about doing it when it’s 110 degrees out, you’re using it around explosives, people are potentially shooting at you, people are yelling, it really needs to be easy to use in those situations and require minimal input from the operator.”

And this could make the operators safer as well, right?

“Right.  I think the more concentration you require from the operator, the more dangerous the situation is because he doesn’t know what’s going on around him.  The more he can pay attention to other things the better off everything is I think.”

What do you think is the most impressive/beneficial thing about this capability and why?

“One thing that’s not really apparent, if you’re just using the system, is something that’s kind of complex, but it’s a software solution.  A lot of the times when people develop a system for robots they develop it for a specific system that uses specific motors, specific sensors, and cameras.  What that does is it locks that ability into that hardware system.  But this isn’t developed in that way.  We could use this on potentially any robotic system; on currently fielded ones and ones that are coming up in the future.”

That’s great!  So what got you interested in this field of study?

“It’s really kind of a long progression that just naturally happened. Originally, I watched my dad work on cars, and looking over his shoulder I kind of understood what engineering was and got interested in it.  Throughout school, I was doing math and geometry, and I knew I liked it but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do.  All the way through high school and even into early college I hadn’t really paid any attention to robotics…until I took a class called kinematics at Tennessee Tech University.  That really opened up my eyes to what was possible when you combine all that math and geometry that I spent so much time learning, and you add motors and microcontrollers.  You get to do really cool stuff.”

Armed with Science’s motto is “science matters”.  In your own words, why does science – and your work in particular – matter to you?

“I once heard someone say that our warfighters should never go into a fair fight.  That’s really important.”

“These young men and women are putting their lives on the line to defend our freedom.  It’s important that they’re equipped with the best technology.  They should really never have to go into a fair fight.”

If you could go anywhere in time and space, where would you go and why?

“Any time someone asks me this question I say that I know time travel will never exist in my lifetime because I would have already come back and told myself about it.  If I could, I would go into the future, 100 or 200 years.  I would be interested in seeing how far technology has advanced, and mostly be interested in robotics, and seeing what comes of it.”

Considering what we have done in the last century, imagine what two more would do.  Do you have anything else you’d like to add?

“Yeah.  Throughout this project we used a lot of open source software.  Without the communities that put these open source tools together, doing projects like this would be a ton harder.  Almost to the point where it would be impossible for someone like me, who has kind of a limited understanding of low-level programming, to be able to do.”

Thanks to Aaron O’Toole for contributing to this article, and for his contributions to the science and technological communities.

Jessica L. Tozer is the editor and blogger for Armed with Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for science and technology in the military.

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