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Sunday, August 13, 2017

Conclusion and Reflection: Robotics Institute Summer Scholars 2017

non-technical: suitable for any reader
It was always a pleasure walking through the Gates entrance and to my lab in the Robotics Institute. Now, 11 weeks later, I approach more Gates... different Gates, these ones lead not to my lab but to the flight I'll take home... The consequence of living the fast life, is that it goes by so fast...
I remember around this time last year writing my final post as I head back from taiwan. The feeling I had then holds even more depth now that I'm leaving another fantastic experience a whole year later.

This post outlines the last week of RISS. Yes, this all happened in a single week. What goes by so fast is not a blur of events, but a collection of intricately woven experiences that must be expanded and reflected on. I'd like to use this post to slow down and highlight just how much has taken place.

The Final Week of RISS
DJI Workshop
The RISS coordinators are wonderful, in that only they would arrange a full day workshop with DJI -- the leading drone enterprise -- a mere day before our final deadlines for RISS and the banquet ceremony.

This was not just any ordinary workshop where we'd use drones. I realized this after I came in to volunteer the day before and met Dr. Zhiyuan Li, one of the directors of DJI. We spent the day setting up the RISS-exclusive workshop, featuring their latest drone "Spark".

The workshop itself featured about 15 other RISS cohorts and allowed for a closely knit experience with the DJI team. This included Arnoud Thiercelin, DJI's lead iOS Engineer, and Ms. Hui Xu, a manager of DJI.

The task of the RISS cohort was to use the Spark drone, to follow a path of april-tags laid outside of the Gates building.
DJI Spark drone at the RISS 2017 workshop.
DJI Spark, positioned to complete the RISS challenge. 

The biggest challenge was that we had only about 8 hours, I was using someone else's machine to code, in which was running Mac (an OS I have almost never used), in Objective C (a language I've never coded in), for a drone (which I've never programmed for).

I love challenges like this, as they give me exposure to technologies and workflows that I'd never explored. Teams quickly assembled and after presentations from the DJI team we began the workshop.
Safety presentation at RISS 2017 by Sankalp Arora, entrepreneurial lead of Nabla Ascent INC.
A safety presentation from Sankalp Arora, lead of Nabla Ascent Inc. Photo courtesy of Xiaohuan Wang

Now, this is where Murphy's law comes in: My partner (Anjana),and I were approaching the 6-hour mark in the workshop; however, we couldn't so much as get our drone up in the air. The added pressure is that the first team had just finished the whole navigation circuit and was packing up their things. It gets tempting in these situations to make quick and unplanned decisions; because no one wants to be the weakest link, especially with the DJI team working beside you. Still, my partner and I maintained composure. We kept a steady pace and discussed the possible reasons as to why our drone isn't getting into the air... At this point I felt like I could rehearse every line of our program, and probably every function we called. Still, nothing.

This is when we made an important realization: Asking for help isn't frowned upon, failing to complete a task is. We asked Arnaud for guidance, in which he helped us setup DJI's simulation software for the drone... When we outlined our difficulty in getting the drone above a certain height, the problem became clear. We had our GPS coordinates set to Shenzen China, a recently announced NO-FLY-ZONE for drones... Thus, it is natural that the Spark isn't taking flight. DJI puts an immense amount of effort into adhering to drone safety and legal regulations. With a quick update to use the correct GPS coordinates, we were off the ground.

Here is some quick footage of a demo going on during the day, with Dr. Li demonstrating the robustness of the DJI Spark.

6 pm approaches and all of the other cohorts are heading in for dinner. Of course, I'm still sitting out here with my partner, working on our drone, with the DJI team awaiting our completion.

Kyle and Anjana working on the DJI Spark at RISS 2017.

I felt no pressure coming from them, however. They are well composed, despite being so busy, they watched, and asked questions, and offered their support. I focused on the problem at hand.
Kyle and Anjana working with DJI at RISS 2017
Kyle (left) and Anjana (right) working with DJI leaders Zhiyuan (2nd from left) and Arnaud (2nd from right). Photo courtesy of Xiaohuan Wang

With each iteration, we were improving... On our "last trial", we deployed the Spark and successfully completed the course, with everyone bearing witness.
The task completion was straightforward, but what was satisfying is the progress we made in a single day. I'd now learned how to do basic IOS development, operate a drone, and write software in in Objective C.
Working with DJI was a great experience as it demonstrated a fundamental requirement of a good researcher and developer: You don't have to know everything... In fact, you may know very little about something. What matters is that you can pick up the skills needed, collaborate with your team, maintain composure, and follow through until the job is done, regardless of intermediate setbacks.

Research Paper
Following the workshop, my colleague Gabe and I stayed up and finished our research paper, and improved the research poster due the next day. I shall discuss more details about our project in a later post!
Gabriel working on the paper. Go Gabe Go!!!

Final Closing Ceremony
The final day was here. Dr. Sycara and Sasanka welcomed me and we sat together at the banquet. Gabriel and Rebecca participated in the RISS band that was performing for the various mentors, students, and industry leaders in the crowd.
Gabriel, Terrence, and Rebecca RISS band 2017.
Terrence (left) Gabriel (middle) and Rebecca (Right) forming the RISS 2017 band.
Kyle Morris receiving the RISS 2017 Completion certificate at Carnegie Mellon.
Me (middle obviously) receiving the RISS 2017 completion certificate. Photo courtesy of Xiaohuan Wang

The Robotics Institute Summer Scholars (RISS) 2017 Cohort.
The RISS 2017 Cohort (and coordinators). Photo Courtesy of Xiaohuan Wang. 

Poster Session
Overview of the RISS 2017 Poster session.
Overview of the RISS 2017 Poster session.

3 pm rolled around and the poster session began. All of the scholars were laid out to bask in a downpour of questions from seasoned scholars.

Kyle Morris at RISS 2017 Poster session.
Defending my life poster. That open hand gesture means I'm talking business, or posing for a tedtalk.

Research talks feel much different than a standard business pitch. In business, you compete for a slice of a large market, and it is natural to have competitors using identical methods. You can pitch your idea, your charisma, and the immediate opportunity you have with your business. In research, you need something new, significant to the world, and improving on what currently exists. If you lack any of these things, you lose your audience. I find that the heightened difficulty of communicating research significance indirectly improves my business presentation.

Kyle and Gabe at RISS poster session.
That's a tricky question! I'll pass this one over to you Gabe ;) 
Departure and Conclusion
The week flew by, and just like that, RISS 2017 had come to a close.

For 11 weeks, I had the honor of working with some of the brightest undergraduate scholars in the world, in some of the best research labs with pioneers in the field. Words cannot describe how thankful I am for being given this opportunity. Each and every day we were pushed to our limit, and at the beginning, I honestly thought "this was it, I'm in over my head and I don't belong in an institution of this caliber."; but that was proven false, not because of me; but because of the colleagues and mentors that allowed me to realize my potential.

Thank you, Dr. Katia Sycara, Sasanka Nagavalli, and Dr. Chanjoo Nam, for challenging me far beyond my comfort zone in the Advanced Agent-Robotics Technology Lab. Despite being a beginner in many things, I was never met with condescension, but instead you provided me with the resources needed do my very best.

Furthermore thank you Rachel Burcin, Dr. John Dolan, and others on the RISS coordinating team. Of the countless 100's of applicants you had to choose from, I am so grateful you welcomed me into this program. Thank you for providing me with connections in the industry, academia, and leadership opportunities I've never had.

To the entire RISS cohort, you guys are incredible. I remember gathering at Rebecca's in the first week of RISS and discussing how we got into the program... Despite your disbelief, reading your applications made it clear as to why you deserve to be in this program. I've learned so much about not only research, but insights into the culture, ethics, and value systems that you are using to change the world.

Lastly, thank you, Gabriel Arpino, for the countless days and nights spent translating your rigorous theoretical understanding into material I could grasp. Your ability to balance intense work ethic with a calm presence allowed us to propose, plan, and complete far more than the sum of our parts.

While this marks the end of RISS, I feel no emptiness or loss, but rather an intense vigor to maintain the incredibly high bar, and fast pace that is expected in Carnegie Mellon. I will be continuing to work with the Advanced Agents-Robotics Technology lab remotely and to maintain a connection with my colleagues.
Kyle Morris and Gabriel Arpino working together at RISS 2017.
Photo courtesy of Dat Nguyen 

So in short, I don't feel I've said goodbye, or need to.

To quote the prominent words of a wise man in the field of robotics and AI...
"I'll be back..."

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