Zachary K. Kingston and Andrew Wells, first-year graduate students in computer science (CS) at Rice University, have received NASA Space Technology Research Fellowships (NSTRF17) that could fund their work in robotics for up to four years. The fellowships are given to graduate students who exhibit "significant potential to contribute to NASA's goal of creating innovative new space technologies for our Nation's science, exploration, and economic future." Kingston and Wells work as research assistants in the robotics lab of Lydia E. Kavraki, the Noah Harding Professor of CS and professor of bioengineering.
"We are very proud of Zak and Andrew. These are talented and hardworking students with research interests that will promote the use of robots as assistants and caretakers in space missions. Their efforts are rewarded by NASA, which has put great trust in them," said Kavraki, whose new robotics laboratory opened in Duncan Hall in March.
As part of their fellowships, both will have internships at a NASA facility such as the Johnson Space Center in Houston and work with advanced robots such as Robonaut II, NASA's humanoid robot built in its Dextrous Robotics Laboratory. Kingston, who works in the field of constrained motion planning in robots, interned at Johnson Space Center last summer as a guest researcher.
Wells focuses on task and motion planning, and is using the new UR5 robot manipulators in the Kavraki Lab. "This requires combining high and low-level planning," he said. "Imagine telling a robot to set the table. Task planning gives you a list of actions, such as moving plates to certain locations, but instantiating these actions with a motion planner raises difficulties due to the juxtaposition of the discrete and continuous."
Kingston graduated from Rice with a B.S. in CS in 2016; Wells, from the Catholic University of America with a B.S. in CS and a bachelor of philosophy degree, also in 2016. In March, Kingston was among the 28 students at Rice to receive a 2017 National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship.