Shelton’s Sobh helps propel UB robotics success

For over a year, University of Bridgeport (UB) robotics specialists — under the tutelage of Shelton’s own Dr. Tarek Sobh — partnered with Stratford-based Advanced Robot Solutions (ARS) to help customize ARS’ FURo-D service robotics.

The result — Amazon selected the FURo-D robot and the ARS/UB integrated controller as its first to showcase Amazon Web Services’ (AWS) recently released cloud robotics platform, RoboMaker, at the just-concluded 2019 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nev.

“This was amazing, but unexpected,” said Sobh, UB executive vice president and dean of the College of Engineering, Business & Education, about how the project started to where it ended — at the CES, what the local resident called the “Super Bowl” for innovators and breakthrough technologies for 50 years — the global stage where next-generation innovations are introduced to the marketplace.

In early 2017, Paul McManus, ARS CEO, approached UB’s robotics group to help customize the company’s FURo-D service robots for different clients and operations. The FURo-D robot is one of ARS’ most circulated artificial intelligence service robots, serving patrons at airports, children hospitals, courthouses, trade shows and other venues.

By November 2018, Sobh and Patel had been awarded a research grant by ARS, with research and development activities being conducted in the RISC lab by UB engineering students under the pair’s tutelage.

The University of Bridgeport is among the first few universities in the world to use AWS RoboMaker and integrate it with service robots, and the UB/ARS displayed robotic platform was the sole mobile AI robotic platform at the Amazon Exposition Suite at CES.

During this collaborative effort, Sobh said Amazon began eyeing the work, ultimately deciding to see what the applications could be when joining it with cloud computing.

“When this started, we considered it just another R&D project,” said Sobh, adding that UB’s robotics department has contracts with various companies and even the federal government.

Then Amazon got involved, and Sobh said as the work progressed, with the results so promising, Amazon officials asked if the work could be completed in time for the CES. With only a few weeks left before the CES, Sobh admitted he felt the job was too enormous.

“But this was such an amazing opportunity — to bring our work to CES — we just pushed it. There were a lot of nights without any sleep, but we made the deadline, and there we were. It was amazing,” said Sobh.

Pritesh Bhavsar, a UB RISC lab graduate student, worked with ARS and the Amazon RoboMaker team to integrate the FURo-D robot’s native software and AWS RoboMaker seamlessly, implementing capabilities such as CloudWatch, Amazon Lex, Amazon Polly and Sumerian.

Due to the success and interest of thousands of participants at CES, UB’s RISC lab., ARS,

and Amazon have agreed to start working on expanding their collaborative research and development efforts to support the growing demand of humanoid and mobile robots in the service industry.

Robotics, according to Sobh, has long been one of UB’s School of Engineering’s areas of research excellence.

Sobh founded the Robotics, Intelligent Sensing and Control (RISC) Lab at UB in 1995. He continues to direct its research, along with co-director Dr. Sarosh Patel, assistant professor of computer and science and engineering.

Over the past decade, Sobh said the lab’s growth has exploded, establishing the department as an international powerhouse in robotics. And while hundreds of students have come through the lab — many going on to incredible success in the field both in the United States and internationally — Sobh said he takes incredible pride in the work the lab does in local communities.

“We do so many cool things,” said Sobh, noting the lab’s creation of the STEM bus, which recently visited the FIRST Lego League championships late last year at Shelton High, as well as creation of technology and engineering courses at 19 schools, including in Shelton, throughout the state.

“That is a very distinctive characteristic about our program,” said Sobh. “We really want to be involved with the community, with the schools, not-for-profits. That is a value of ours, to give back. It’s an incredible feeling.”