We're a little crazy, about science!

Return of the robot paper

Logically I knew I would get a response sooner or later, I mean you submit something to a journal and you’re going to get a response. Even if it’s just a screw you, you hack. Can you tell I’ve already had several of those? Well yesterday I finally got the email about the paper I wrote on the work I did in my Masters degree days, which feels like a very long time ago now that I’m almost done with my PhD. The news is good, but I’m going to be cautious.

Fourteen days. Fourteen days is the amount of time I have to make the edits and resubmit the paper to the journal. That is the good news, the paper is close enough to being “printable” that the editors set a deadline for a resubmission instead of giving us no deadline and a laundry list of other journals we should think about submitting the work to. Since it’s been awhile and since this paper has nearly killed me, I figure we can recap the story of my robot.

Way back when I started this blog (eight!! years ago), I was heavy in design and making prosthetics/robotics. As an undergrad I worked in a lab doing some research and managed to get a couple conference papers out of the deal. The task was to build one joint for a bipedal walking robot, as in humanoid. So I did, then my PI at the time told me to do the rest. I like to think it was because I did so well, but I was also the only real option to do the work, so it’s anyone’s guess.

The robot was built using a technique I developed. I took MRI and CT scans of several joints, compiled some measurements of tendons, surfaces, etc, and used that information to build each joint. I originally started with the knee because I thought it would be the simplest. I thought it was a basic hinge joint with one degree of freedom (front to back), but turns out the knee is the most complex joint in the body and has 6 degrees of freedom, but you don’t know what you don’t know.

By the time I finished my undergrad I had a rough design for the knee and by the time I finished my Masters I had created the most advanced knee for robotics or prosthetics available and that still holds true to this day four years or so later. We measure “advanced” on the power requirements to create the rotation, the wear properties, and the compactness of the joint. The knee was super energy efficient (like the human knee) and it locked in the standing position to save energy (like the human knee). Basically I’m convinced that it would be hard to do better than that design and until someone does something better, well I’m happy to be on top, even if the work hasn’t gotten much attention.

My knee! My former PI let me keep it, which was super nice of him considering this is ~$150 of materials.

I’ll share finished robot photos here at the end, I’ve shown it before anyway, so I don’t mind sharing again. Unlike the work I’m doing now, I can share the robot stuff because it’s how it was made that makes it novel. While the work was (is) cutting edge, the journal paper has been marred by rejection after rejection from journals. Everyone wanted more, they wanted us to make it walk, they wanted us to have it do stuff, basically all the time, energy, effort, and thought that went into design was worthless to a lot of these journals.

We submitted it, like 6-7 times now I believe. I’ve honestly lost count and it takes months to get a response so it’s been years of submission, rejection, paper edits, submission, rejection, paper edits. An infinite repeating cycle that, until my recent successes with journal papers, had me fully convinced I didn’t belong in research. If I said this paper had me depressed, I would be lying. This paper literally had me thinking about killing myself because what the fuck good was I if this was my best work and everyone kept saying it was garbage? (Quick aside because I know you all care — and I love all of you too — I’m fine now, but man was that a dark time and it didn’t help that I had three other papers just sitting there not getting published either)

I’ve learned that publishing a paper is rough and design engineering papers in particular can be hard to get published. It’s like it’s treated as a lesser form of engineering. No one cares that I build something that had (mostly) the range of motion and joint properties of a human, they wanted a fully finished working, moving, obstacle conquering Boston Dynamics-like robot.

So when I got the response to the latest submission (which we submitted back in August I believe, to give you an idea how long this stuff takes), I wasn’t holding out much hope. The reviews were mostly kind, one reviewer was a total ass, saying we had too many citations, that the work wasn’t novel (but did not provide examples), but the other two reviewers were kind. Mostly it’s grammer (well writing style), everyone has opinions on that and they are all different, so we’ll make the changes and resubmit it to see what happens. This is the closest we’ve gotten to actually getting the work published though and the deadline is a good giveaway that they are planning on publishing it.

I’m not celebrating yet, I’ve become jaded with this paper and I almost just want to give up. I’ll do the work of course, I’ve spent far too many years and far too much effort not to do the work now. I’ll be happy once I can close this little chapter in my career though and I guess in some ways it was good to experience this early on in my career. Hopefully this will be the first and only time it will happen.

As for the robot pictures I promised, well here’s the mostly finished version. I stood it up to see how well it would balance before I attached the spinal column (well the lumbar portion of the spinal column anyway).

It’s self balancing and because the knee locks, it doesn’t take any energy for it to stand still. This was probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever built (it’s full size!!!!)
And here it is getting it’s brand new spinal column attached.

I didn’t take a whole lot of photos because I thought I would have more time, but a few weeks after I finished the construction I went to conferences in Paris, France, and Bristol, UK, then came home and immediately moved across the country to start my new school (I literally started the day after I arrived in the state).

This probably won’t be the last time I talk about the robot, but I’m hoping the next time I do, it’s because the paper was published.

But enough about us, what about you?

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