UNLV mechanical engineering students Truc Tran, left, and Baekseok Kim with a robot in their la ...

UNLV’s robotics team is competing in the finals of the ANA Avatar XPRIZE competition

Truc Tran, an engineering student at UNLV, stood next to a robot on Monday before turning it on.

After flipping a switch, the 26-year-old waited a few minutes for charging at the university’s Unmanned Aircraft and Autonomous Systems Laboratory.

After the green light appears, the robot is ready.

“Now, the engine and every hardware is running,” Tran said.

Tran, who is working toward his master’s degree, and 28-year-old Baeksiuk Kim, a PhD student in mechanical engineering, showed how the team’s avatar system — dubbed Avatar-Hubo — moves its arms and legs.

After four years in the making, UNLV students recently showed off their robot on the world stage.

The collegiate team was among the 17 groups that participated in the ANA Avatar XPRIZE Finals test event November 4-5 in Long Beach, California. She ranked 11th overall.

The participating teams included universities and companies from 10 countries. They were competing for millions of dollars in prize money.

UNLV’s nine-member team began working on the project after the contest was announced in 2018. Its avatar system is essentially an extension of the person running it.

The humanoid robot can be controlled by an operator using wearable technology. The operator can feel and see what the robot is doing.

The project includes artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and touch devices or touch-related technology.

The ultimate goal is telepresence—feeling and being somewhere else “without actually being in that location,” said team member Nicholas Kosanovic, 22, who is finishing a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.

The UNLV team was among more than 100 from around the world who applied for the XPRIZE contest.

The team competed in the semi-finals in September 2021 in Miami and qualified for the finals, receiving approximately $133,000 in funding to continue work on their project.

UNLV mechanical engineering professor Paul Oh said the contest gave students the opportunity to see what others were doing in the field.

“It’s something they can proudly look back on,” he said.

Oh said he wanted the students to be “in the same room as the best students in the world.” Unlike some places like California or Boston, there’s not much in Las Vegas that can be measured, he said.

Work is already underway at UNLV

XPRIZE has been promoting the idea of ​​telepresence, and that seems to resonate with the work already happening in the UNLV lab, Oh said.

The lab’s focus for years has been disaster response. A system that allows the expertise of a doctor or firefighter to be transferred, for example, “using a robot as your agent is very interesting,” he said.

This could mean having a robot physically on site, while being controlled remotely from a secure location.

In 2015, the UNLV Eighth place at an international robotics competition—the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Robotics Challenge—that focused on disaster response.

With humans and avatars, “I think we’ve just touched the surface,” Oh said, noting that technology is important and will be part of everyone’s daily life. He added that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, telepresence has become even more important.

In the future, Oh said, one application might be using avatar systems to deliver health care in Nevada, especially in rural and remote areas.

For resorts and the entertainment industry, he said, it’s more about how they use augmented reality, and Las Vegas has the opportunity to be at the forefront.

Compete in the finals

The exact format of this month’s XPRIZE Finals test event has been kept under wraps, Oh said, noting that teams often design “in the dark.”

Much of UNLV’s infrastructure and the robot itself were repurposed after the 2015 Challenge. But there were other items like virtual reality equipment and haptic sensors that the team purchased.

In the final test event, the team’s bot was controlled by a judge who received about 40 minutes of training on how to use the UNLV system.

Team leader Jean Chagas Vaz, a research scientist at UNLV’s Laboratory for Unmanned Aircraft and Autonomous Systems, said the team tried to perform their best and navigate some of the lonely balls thrown their way in competition.

What you know: “You have to build a bot that can win in return for doing your best to repurpose the bot.”

Vaz said the team tried to build a mobile base for the robot but had run out of time and funding.

“Apart from that, we had all the ingredients to perform all the tasks,” he said.

The task cycle “created a kind of challenge for our bot,” Tran said.

Duties included picking up packages, identifying heavy packages and manipulating a switch.

Tran said the team did not receive the award it wanted but that it had learned a lot.

“It was very interesting for me because not many people have the opportunity to compete in a very big competition like this,” he said.

Tran got involved with the project in June by creating a robot hand using an in-house 3D printer, and modifying it for tasks the robot needed to complete. It took Tran about two months to create the first prototype.

He earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from UNLV, and after spending two and a half years working in industry, he returned to earn his master’s degree.

From now on, Tran hasn’t decided whether he wants to earn a Ph. D. or venture into the world of entrepreneurship — potentially launching a startup that will make artificial hands for humans.

And for the UNLV lab, the competition may be over, but the work continues.

Vaz said competition is driving labs to innovate. “The technology is far from perfect.”

Contact Julie Wootton-Greener at jgreener@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2921. Follow @employee on Twitter.

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