Two computer science sophomores are using the skills they gained in the Freshman Research Initiative to program flying robots and show them off to other students on campus. Robert Lynch and Matt Broussard, who were both involved in the Autonomous Intelligent Robotics FRI stream run by Dr. Peter Stone, had different ways of arriving in computer science but say research has enriched their undergraduate experience more than anything else.
The stream's ultimate goal is something called the building-wide intelligence project, which will fully integrate the Gates Dell Complex with robotic intelligence, designed in part by Lynch and Broussard, to aid people around the building. The pair now demo their quadcopters from 12:30-1:30 p.m. every Monday in the GDC atrium. They allow students to try a device that lets them steer the copter just by adjusting the angle of their hand over a sensor pad.
I sat down with the pair to see how they got started in computer science and what the FRI and research mean to them.
Kaine Korzekwa: So how did you get started in computer science?
Matt Broussard: I had been pretty involved in computer science before college, actually programming since sixth or seventh grade. My dad works at IBM and I've just always been around it and he got me a book about programming and said 'Hey I think you'd be interested in this.' At first I didn't think I would be but I started realizing how fun it can be. To some degree it's like you're typing magical incantations into the computer and then things happen — that's a very broad abstraction though.
Robert Lynch: I got started a little differently than Matt. I had no computer science background coming to the university. To be completely honest, I flipped a coin my senior year of high school to decide on a major. It was between this and engineering. I knew I liked computers but did not know if I liked the engineering side or the programming side.
And how did you get involved in this research on robots?
Lynch: Coming in we were both presented with the opportunity to join the Freshman Research Initiative, which is a program here in the College of Natural Sciences where freshmen first learn certain research methods and how to use research journals and think scientifically and then you actually go on board in different research streams. We were sorted into this stream, Autonomous Intelligent Robotics.
Broussard: We all have different projects we work on. In our first semester Robert did a lot with wi-fi localization and I did a lot of work on touch screen programming. It's pretty cool because the research has to do with this building itself. Later we both got interested in the control of aerial vehicles and got involved in this quadcopter and drone work.
Do you like doing the demos?
Lynch: The absolute coolest thing to experience in this field is when something works. I just throw my hands in the air and shout 'YEAAASSSS!!!' To see something you made from nothing make people's lives easier or more fun is very rewarding. At the demos more technical people ask how it works or how to get involved, but most say '*expletive* that's cool!' They think it's awesome and then you ask if they want to try it and their eyes light up.
Do you think the Freshman Research Initiative was a good experience?
Broussard: FRI puts you in an environment with people the same as you. The point is that you're just going to dive into something that's probably much larger than you. We're talking about computer vision, computer navigation and robot assembly that I don't think we necessarily would have been exposed to if we hadn't been in the stream.
Lynch: Well we were in here as freshman and that was actually the coolest. You could just walk up to the lab and just touch your card on the card scanner and you felt like a secret agent, to let the kid in me out. I believe everyone should try research because you don't know if you like it or not until you try it.
Why do you think computer science is so important right now?
Broussard: After you get to know the field and mature a bit you start thinking about how computer science is applicable to many career fields. In comparison to other majors I think it has the most potential to do good in any number of different domains just because it's so flexible and so applicable and everything in the world runs on software: organizations, governments, even this university, all run on some kind of software system.