PODCAST: In Conversation with Dr. Joshua Marshall

Posted on July 20, 2020

Listen to Dr. Joshua Marshall, Interim Director of the Ingenuity Labs Research Institute, talk about the lab’s collaborative approach to creating intelligent systems and robotic machines that enhance human productivity, safety, performance, and quality of life.

The Ingenuity Labs Research Institute is a collaborative research initiative at Queen’s University focused on creating intelligent systems and robotic machines that enhance human productivity, safety, performance, and quality of life. The lab brings together researchers from across engineering disciplines and beyond.

  • Today, we're speaking with Dr. Joshua Marshall, a professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Director of the Ingenuity Labs Research Institute, an interdisciplinary initiative at Queen’s University focused on combining artificial intelligence, robotics, and human machine interaction to create future intelligent systems and robotic machines that enhance human productivity, safety, performance, and quality of life.

    Dr. Marshall's research interests are in field and service robotics as well as autonomous vehicles and planetary and space robotics. He was instrumental in building the multidisciplinary Off-Road Robotics Research Group at Queen’s, and is also a founding member of the NSERC Canadian robotics network.

    Welcome to the podcast, Josh.

    Thanks for having me.

    So I'd like to start by asking you about field and service robots. What exactly are they?

    So field and service robots are robots that typically operate in complex and dynamic environments. They're usually non-factory robots. So if you think about a factory, where we get to engineer everything about the world in that factory, a field and service robot is one that operates usually in an outdoor environment, maybe for example, an underground or in the water or in the air.  Applications for field and service robots range from things like mining to hospitals, right?

    These are the type of robots that we would be studying with the Off-Road Robotics Group?

    Yeah, so the Off-Road Robotics Group here at Queen’s is a multidisciplinary research group. We mostly focus on field robotics and we're mostly interested in robot control and navigation perception. So robots trying to figure out where they are and how to act in response to the world around them. Sometimes we get into building new robots with new designs, and sometimes we take existing robots or existing vehicles and machines and turn them into robots. We collaborate a lot with industry. So we're often working on problems that are hopefully close to industry needs or are quite relevant to the challenges of our modern daily lives. We've had partners in the Off-Road Robotics Research Group in the space industry and the defense mining industry. And we collaborate also with a lot of researchers here at Queen’s and across Canada and the world. We are also part of a larger group called the NSERC Canadian Robotics Network.

    You've mentioned mining. So, you know, deep underground, then you've also mentioned planetary and space and Mars, there must be similarities and differences between them.

    Great question. I started my career working in mining robotics, and then I transitioned to work for a Canadian space robotics firm, McDonald Detweiler and Associates. And they're probably best known for Canadarm, but they also do a lot of other great robotics work there. I started working on space robotics problems, and we really realized there that there are a lot of similarities between the mining and resource industries. And the challenge of doing activities on the moon say or Mars is  they're both industries that have to work in harsh environments where people might not want to be, or maybe just can't be because it's too far away or very expensive. So we send robots instead.

    The mining industry has really had similar challenges to the space industry. To a certain extent. When I was an undergraduate student, I told one of my professors that I was going to mind in space someday. And then they kind of laughed at me. And I think we're probably a ways off from that. But I think that certainly there are a lot of similar issues to mining as we go deeper. For example, on earth, the challenges of putting people there is becoming more and more of an issue.

    I understand that you recently received some funding to explore AI and robotics for rail infrastructure monitoring. I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about that?

    So this is a new project with Neil Holt in Civil Engineering. So Neil is an expert in fiber optic sensors on rail to, to monitor the stresses and the health of rail infrastructure. And there's a lot of rail out there. So we're looking at how we might kind of automate or use robotics to install these sensors and then process the data on mass, If you like, from the sensors to better understand the health of a rail network. So we're really, really early on in this project and it kind of speaks to the whole field of robotics and multidisciplinary collaboration. And you can see how these kinds of ideas can come together to, to do something that we haven't done before by bringing the disciplines together.

    It sounds like much of your research, if not, all of your research is multidisciplinary.

    I am a huge proponent of encouraging multidisciplinary research, interdisciplinary research, and just getting people from different departments, different disciplines to work together and bring their ideas together. I'm cross appointed to both Mining Engineering here and, and also to Mechanical Materials Engineering and I'm housed in Electrical and Computer Engineering. So I have graduate students in all of those departments and they all sit together in the same place. So, so in other words, we have, you know, the Mining students sitting beside the Electrical and Computer Engineering students, sitting beside the Mec student and they're talking, they're working on, um, different aspects of, of a bigger project, for example, where we brought in the expertise from each of those disciplines. And so they each bring their own perspective, their own unique experiences to the problems that we work on. And I think that's a huge advantage for our group.

    And so if we think bigger as is Ingenuity Labs, this, this new exciting research initiative that we've started here, it's very much multidisciplinary. And the idea is to bring people together, not just in the research, but also physically. So here we are, we're chatting here in the new facility in Mitchell Hall, in this facility is a big open space where people from all of those different disciplines meet and physically collide and talk about their research together. So we have people from engineering, the different departments, Mechanical, Electrical, and Computer engineering, but also from Computing Science. And likewise in engineering labs, we have our people not just from engineering, but also from, from Computing Science. So the idea of bringing these different together is really necessary because the problems we work on are multidisciplinary too. So to fool ourselves to think that this is a mechanical problem, or this is an electrical and computer engineering problem, or this is a computer science problem is totally just an excuse to not work together. You know, you drive a car today and that car is made up of mechanical chemical, electrical computing components, right. It's not any one discipline.

    Right. And that must present great opportunities for students.

    I think so. And I think actually something that's happened quite a bit in my group. And I think it's starting to happen more often is that students are doing a degree, for example, in one discipline. And then they do another degree in a different discipline. So they'll do an undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering and then they'll do their Master’s in Electrical and Computer Engineering. Um, and I think that's fantastic.

    You have this amazing new space. Thanks, of course, to Bruce Mitchell, how important is that to have people like Bruce Mitchell supporting the work of the lab?

    I can't overstate the importance of that kind of visionary support. So Mr. Mitchell took me aside at one of the events for a moment and he said, whatever you do go big. And so I've, I've had that little message from Bruce and we've met several times throughout the last few years as we've been developing this vision that is Ingenuity Labs. And just try to keep in mind that the, the idea is to go big. And in my mind going big is to think about big projects and to think about big collaborations and to try to bring all these people together.

    That's what I think going big means for Queen’s and without people like Bruce Mitchell and his vision to come forward and say, I have the funds to help you with this. We've used some of these funds that, you know, not only to build the space that's here, but also to try to kickstart some of the research that we're doing. And we forced it to be collaborative research. The funds are used to bring people together. We're trying to build something from the ground up and we have 18 faculty members now that are working together. So yeah, again, I can't overstate the significance of that support.

    Okay. Thanks so much for speaking with us today, Josh.

    Thanks for having me.