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Computer Science Students Graduate with Robotics Experience

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Two Fordham graduates got to see what a career in robotics might look like thanks to an internship at a technology company that specializes in the fast-growing field.

Alex Keyes, FCLC ’16, and Peng Tang, GSAS ’16, interned last summer at Adept Technologies, where they designed, built, and tested robotics software in the mobile robots division.

“It was fantastic. We had a lot of autonomy,” said Keyes, who graduated from Fordham last month with a BS in computer science. “I realized the skills I have been cultivating at Fordham can directly translate to having a job—which is something you don’t necessarily experience if you don’t have an internship.”

Keyes and Tang landed the spots at Adept thanks to work they’d been doing in Fordham’s Robotics and Computer Vision Laboratory, directed by Damian Lyons, PhD, the interim chair of the computer and information science department and associate vice president for academic affairs at Fordham.

Detecting Danger

In the lab, Keyes and Tang worked on improving an algorithm that allows a team of mobile robots to communicate and navigate indoor space together, spreading out quickly to explore an unknown area.

Programs like these can be applied to search-and-rescue missions, Lyons said, when robots are sent in to locate victims and determine which areas are safe for first responders.

“It’s a very challenging problem, and we’ve addressed different parts of it at different times,” he said, adding that the lab has received some funding from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, part of the U.S. Department of Defense, to do similar work writing programs that allow robots to search for biohazards and weapons of mass destruction.

Lyons, who founded the lab in 2002, said working in robotics gives students several unique skills that are becoming more and more relevant.

“Cyberphysical systems are some of the most difficult types of systems to program, and this is exactly what robotics prepares you for,” he said. He also noted that with the increasing prevalence of robotics and cyberphysical systems comes a host of ethical issues that have yet to be worked out.

“You probably can’t buy an expensive car these days without it having a lot of robotic programming in it. … Eventually there won’t even be a steering wheel. But, of course, then who is at fault if that car causes an accident?” he asked.

“With the liberal arts and Jesuit educational background that Fordham provides, our students have a grounding not just in the technology but in the kinds of issues involved when the technology is deployed in society. I feel our students can be effective leaders in this area.”

Keyes and Tang were awarded the internships in spring 2015, when robotics technicians at Adept supervised the work the students were doing in the Fordham lab, which owns several of Adept’s robots for student research. Standing at about a foot and half tall, the bots move on four large all-terrain tires, and come equipped with programmable computers and various sensors that can measure distance. The Adept staff was impressed with the students’ work, and invited them to intern at the company’s research center in New Hampshire last summer.

Internship Supported by Science Council Alumnus

The relationship with Adept (now Omron Adept Technologies) —the largest U.S.-based manufacturer of industrial robots—was forged by Fordham alumnus Richard Juelis, FCRH ’70, an angel investor with a life science and technology background who sat on the company’s board for nine years. Adept provided living expenses and some of the funding for the internship, and Juelis provided the rest through a donation to Fordham.

“Any time you can do something hands-on in the industry, it’s a great for students’ career development. When I was in school, there weren’t many internship opportunities, particularly in newer fields like robotics and computer science, ” said Juelis, who is a member of the Fordham Science Council—a group of alumni who support science education at the University. “And it’s a win-win, for Adept too, because they get interns who can help them develop new products.”

Juelis has sought to extend this type of exposure to younger students as well. “We also arranged for a visit to Fordham for students from my high school’s robotics program,” he said, “and hope to continue this in the future. ”

Real Responsibility, Relevant Experience

Both Keyes and Tang said that the small team at Adept included them in major projects and came to rely on them.

“Everyone has this idea of a software engineer as a very isolated thing—the nerd in the basement. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Everyone there knew who Peng and I were, and they were very open to talking to us about what they were working on or things we were working on. They made sure we were having a rich experience,” he said. “We had a lot of responsibility.”

The experience at Adept—and in the Robotics and Computer Vision Lab—has provided both students with concrete skills they will take with them into the job market.

Tang—who earned an MS in computer science at Fordham—started work as a systems engineer at Comcast in Philadelphia this month, working with big data sets. Even though the position is not in robotics, he feels he can draw on skills that are transferable.

“There’s a lot of fundamental stuff that I learned in robotics that will definitely be helpful for my job,” said Tang. “A lot of knowledge in computer science is universal.”

Lyons said the relationship with Adept has been very valuable not only in providing students with concrete, hands-on experience but also in allowing them to envision a career in robotics.

“We’d love to see the internship continue,” he said.

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