dancing robots at University of Richmond
Computer science professor Patrick Martin with his students Andrew Armstrong and Joel Murphy in the new robotics lab.

Humans and machines team up in new robotics lab

March 19, 2024


To a casual observer, the contents of the new robotics lab, located on the ground level of Jepson Hall, might look like a bunch of random wires, parts, and pieces, but these items fit together to form cutting-edge research about the possibilities of human-robot interactions. 

The lab, which opened this semester, serves as a research hub for computer science professor Patrick Martin and a dozen undergraduate research students. Martin, a roboticist who joined the UR faculty in the fall, is working to develop technologies that allow humans and robots to interact in more natural ways, which is rooted in good communication.

“If you're going to have a robot in close proximity with a human, you're going to need to communicate with the robot, and the robot needs to communicate with you, so that’s a key component of what we focus on,” Martin said.

In Martin’s lab, this interaction takes many forms — from visual cues like body language to computer algorithms and location tagging. This focus on nonverbal communication is part of a subfield known as human-robot teaming. Martin uses dance to highlight the possibilities of this work.

“Many videos of humans and robots interacting together are heavily edited and stitched together, so that’s a modified versus 100% real experience,” Martin said. “Our lab uses the performing arts as a starting point to share this research in live settings, which can be both impressive and messy, but the real-time results and scenarios, including mistakes, are helpful.”

Through a partnership with a colleague at Virginia Commonwealth University, Martin’s research team choreographs a performance to showcase humans and robots working together. The performance, called “Together//Apart” examines what happens when humans share spaces with machines. In a live setting, the choreographer sends instructions for spatial patterns to both dancers and robots in real time. The performers respond to each other, shift from leader to follower, and change formations.  

The team performed earlier this year at Theaterlab in New York City and will present again next month during a major technology festival at Virginia Tech.   

“We are giving the robots gestures, and my hope is the robots can take those single gestures and add their own movements to one day build their own performances,” Martin said. “Eventually, they can do their own improvisation in the live performance with humans and react in a way they choose versus how they are told.”

Martin says the applications go far beyond the performing arts.

“This research has applications in healthcare, advanced manufacturing, and agriculture,” Martin said. “I collaborate with people in advanced manufacturing here in Virginia, and one goal of this research to move it out of the lab. Instead of just being theory, I think it’s way more important for roboticists to really push out into the field and in public spaces.”

Another major theme of the robotics research happening at UR is adaptation.

“Right now, if we have a Roomba-style vacuum in a corner, we pick it up if it gets stuck,” Martin said. “I would rather have my robot be able to adapt and figure out next steps on its own. Am I damaged? Can I turn around?”

Senior Joel Murphy has been working in Martin’s lab this academic year with a focus on the physical structure and software of robots. Murphy, a computer science major and math and data science minor, from Jackson, Mississippi, has accepted a job with as a software engineer for Northrop Grumman in Baltimore, following his graduation this May.

“Dr. Martin’s lab has provided a unique, hands-on experience to my time at the University of Richmond where I am given a lot of leeway to how I can approach a problem with broad directions, which is similar to how software engineering is done in the workplace,” Murphy said.