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Dr. Ralph Etienne-Cummings, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at The Johns Hopkins University, is developing improved sensors for robotics that he hopes will improve the lives of people.
Ralph Etienne-Cummings left his lovely island home of Seychelles at the age of 12, but he remembers it fondly and features the small nation's Web site on his Johns Hopkins University home page, http://bach.ece.jhu.edu/~etienne. The island, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean off the eastern coast of Africa, is proud of its beautiful white beaches, pleasant climate, and wild bird rookeries. Seychelles can also be proud of its native son, now associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., among other academic and research positions.
At JHU, Dr. Etienne-Cummings is known for his work in the relatively new field of "neuromorphic engineering" -- how biology solves problems and creates engineering solutions. For example, how do a fly's eyes work so effectively that they can see obstacles -- like you with a swatter -- so quickly and at any angle? What if a device could be engineered to help machines -- or people -- see in the same way? To understand the biological "why," Dr. Etienne-Cummings believes, will lead to an understanding of the "how," and that eventually will lead to applications that will directly help people.
His mission, he recently told USBE Online, "is to look at biological constructs to see what lessons are to be learned." His special interest today is finding ways to improve visual systems for robotics. For example, he has worked on developing a handheld device with sensors that give verbal cues to identify objects in its "visual" range. For the blind, this device is like another set of eyes. After a short learning phase, the device, which resembles a flashlight, can recognize objects such as a favorite coffee cup, a hairbrush, or other household objects and tell the user when it is in front of her or him.
Improved visual sensors are in great demand by the Department of Defense, for example, which is funding most of the enabling work. The DoD wants to have unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) -- similar to those used during the recent combat in Afghanistan and Iraq -- that can follow people through the countryside or city streets, or fly through caves, using robotic vision. The goal is to build sensors that will enable robotic applications to perform these tasks automatically, on their own initiative, without specific directions from human controllers.
In addition to its military applications, civilian "first responders" could use equipment with improved visual sensors to search through rubble, crawl into tight spaces, and even "walk" through fire.
His wide-ranging interests go beyond vision systems, however. Dr. Etienne-Cummings collaborates with a biologist at the University of Maryland, where he also holds an appointment, to study the primitive spinal cord of lampreys.
"Human and animal spinal cords are extremely complex," he says. "You can't make the leap from fish to mammal, but it's an important first step in the puzzle."
The researchers' dream is to build chips that will mimic the human spinal cord, filling in gaps in the nervous tissue after a spinal-cord injury.
"But that's 15 to 20 years away," he says.
Robotics will be the first field to benefit from this research. Imagine bipedal robots that walk as naturally and smoothly as humans.
"We hope to take what we learn from fish and then make robots that can move the same way," Dr. Etienne-Cummings says.
Unlike the digital chips we rely on today, neurobiologically inspired circuits represent a continuum of values not possible when using 0s and 1s as codes. This provides smoother, human-like movement. Imagine using this technology, for example, with amputees who need a reconstructed lower limb that will receive smooth, continuous signals from hips and thighs to move up or down, bend, or stretch. Or conversely, he says, "imagine leg braces or boots that enable the wearer to run faster, jump higher, and dunk like Michael Jordan!"
Dr. Etienne-Cummings developed an early interest in understanding how things work."I was always good at math and interested in physics," he remembers.
He studied how transistors work while he was an undergraduate in physics at Lincoln University, an historically Black school in Pennsylvania. From there, he went on to the University of Pennsylvania to study engineering, ultimately receiving his Ph.D. with a special interest in integrated circuits.
Ralph Etienne-Cummings moved to England at the age of 12 and, at 18, came to America with his mother and father. But he has not forgotten the sandy beaches and rugged cliffs of Seychelles, and he has never lost his youthful interest in understanding exactly how things work.
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