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New Faculty Q&A: Xi Yu

A portrait of Xi Yu

Xi Yu was born in the Anhui Province of east China, and later moved to Nanjing, China, at the age of four. While there she learned that an engineering school in Germany, the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, had been recruiting students from China. Yu applied simply because of the promising job opportunities in the engineer fields. She was admitted and awarded a fellowship to support her studying and living expenses. It is during her undergraduate career that she developed her interest in robotics. Yu later went to Boston University and complete her doctoral studies. Following her Ph.D., she became a postdoctoral researcher at the GRASP Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania.

What inspired you to start your mechanical and aerospace engineering career?

I started learning mechanical engineering only because of the promising job opportunities in this field. Both my parents were first-generation college students in their families, respectively. They left their hometowns for better job opportunities and they changed their lives, and my life, by working hard. I grew up most of the time thinking about how to get a decent job to feed myself and my loved ones rather than thinking about what I enjoyed doing in the future. Building machines, as I thought I would be doing, seemed to be a good way to earn a living.

I was lucky to enroll in an engineering program in an era when interdisciplinary research was rising and the boundaries between different majors and subjects were vanishing. As an engineering student, I had the opportunity to learn and to participate in programs of special topics, e.g. robotics, where knowledge and techniques from different areas joined. For the first time in my life, I saw machines doing things beyond my imagination. It was fascinating but also scary in some ways. Such experience made me start thinking about our future with robotic techniques. How robots are fundamentally different from human? What kind of robotic technologies do we want in the future? Would robotics be beneficial or harmful to our society in the long run? None of these questions were easy to answer, but every single question opened up a series of follow-up questions and a new world of fun and challenges.

How would you describe your teaching style?

I see teaching as a mutual educating process between the instructors and the students. While helping students in their studying, I encourage them to ask questions or share what they have discovered that is interesting or inspiring. I see typical knowledge in STEM courses, such as equations and theories as a set of discrete nodes, which might be hard to grasp. Once we discovered the connections between the nodes, they become a network with potential connections to many different things – another subject, a research topic, or even our daily lives. I always found that the most interesting part of learning is to discover the links, and different people have different ways to make their own connections. That’s why discussions between instructors and the students are inspiring and exciting to both parties.

What will be your research focus?

My research interests lie in developing control and coordination frameworks for multi-robot systems, allowing a large number of robots to jointly handle various tasks in large scale environments with dynamics, uncertainties, or even adversaries. Such techniques will typically find their applications in scenarios like exploring or monitoring the outer space, the ocean, the underground, and, in some cases, even in the sub-cellular environments.

What makes this work meaningful to you?

It is always important for me to keep in mind the relations between robots and human societies. I see robots, and all machines, as tools to improve human lives. From day one we started using tools, it was not likely because the tools are good at doing something, but because we can’t, or don’t want to do those things ourselves.

The places where we need robots the most are the places that we don’t want to risk our lives, and those places that are either too big for us to cover, or too small for us to enter.

For example, monitoring the ocean or traversing the outer space may take years; natural phenomena take place at the molecular level are beyond the resolution of our naked eyes; searching in post-disaster debris, through underground tunnels, or on a planet other than earth, is facing a high level of uncertainty and could be life-threatening. Such tasks usually require a long time-window, a comprehensive understanding of the environments, and good coverage of the task spaces. Multi-robot systems not only provide solutions with an expanded coverage due to the number of robots involved, but also introduced new possibilities through the cooperation, coordination, and collaboration across the individuals. They can deliver more complicated tasks, support each other in challenging environments or help each other to recover from attacks and failures. By developing the next generation of multi-robot systems, we are forwarding our frontiers in discovering the world in a safer and easier way.

Besides your work, what are some of your other hobbies and passions?

I am a person who could never say no to tasty food. Besides exploring restaurants providing dishes from different countries, I also develop cross-cuisine recipes myself.

What are you most looking forward to about your new journey at West Virginia University?

I most look forward to meeting the people at WVU-especially students, learning from them, and helping them reach their goals. I myself was very fortunate to be mentored by some of the best educators, and for years I have been hoping to help others, just like they helped me.