August 03, 2010

Loredane Chizat Saint-Lager worked on a compliant metals project as part of a summer internship at Bucknell.

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By Julia Ferrante

LEWISBURG, Pa. - A long-running partnership between Bucknell University and l'Université François-Rabelais de Tours in France has expanded with a summer internship program focusing on robotics and mechanical engineering research.

Three students from Polytech'Tours, the engineering program at the French university, spent the summer at Bucknell working with professors on the development of a bi-pedal, or two-legged, walking robot and on compliant mechanisms.

The summer internship program, which began last summer, is part of an overall effort in the College of Engineering to create more opportunities for international experiences for students in Tours and at Bucknell.

Bucknell's study abroad program in France has been based in Tours for more than two decades. Program Director Angèle Kingué has been looking in recent years for ways to expand the partnership on the technical side, Interim Dean of Engineering Keith Buffinton said. Last year, an opportunity arose when another French student, Henri Sirot, contacted Buffinton and asked if he could come to the United States and work in the robotics laboratory. When Sirot returned to France, he recruited others to do the same.

Mimicking human movement
This summer, French students Maxime Coussement and Gilles Ngningha conducted tests under the direction of Buffinton and Professor of Mechanical Engineering Steve Shooter to improve the movement and balance of a robot. The goal is to make the robot more stable when it walks and less susceptible to falling. The Bucknell professors are developing the bi-pedal robot with the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition in Pensacola, Fla., and NASA. || Ask the Experts: Robots

"Most robots are designed so they are statically balanced," Keith Buffinton explained. "They lift up one leg and then slowly put it down, then lift up their other leg and do the same. That's not how people walk. They swing their legs like a pendulum and basically fall forward with each step, which is a very energy-efficient way of walking."

During the trials in the robotics lab, Ngningha wore a dark athletic "skinny suit" and placed markers on 29 parts of his body. He then walked in place or recovered his balance after Coussement gently pushed him. At the same time, six synchronized Vicon cameras recorded the three-dimensional positions of the markers from various angles at a frequency of 100 times per second. The "mo-cap," or motion-capture technology, is the same as was used in "Titanic" and in some of the "Harry Potter" movies, Buffinton said.

Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Christine Buffinton and Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering Katie Bieryla also worked with the students to incorporate information about the biomechanics of the movements. The information from the cameras was fed into a computer program that showed the various forces and muscle groups that came into play.

"When you put the information in the model, it shows the weight distribution with all the bones and major muscles," Christine Buffinton said. "We match that to the recording of the markers from the camera and animate the muscles."

A third Polytech'Tours student, Loredane Chizat Saint-Lager, collaborated with Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Charles Kim to develop a hard metal device that is flexible, much like the wings on an airplane are malleable. Such devices may be incorporated in the future in robotic devices or laparoscopic surgical instruments for improved performance, Kim said.

"Most mechanical designs have rigid pieces and joints, like a door with a hinge that allows it to move. In compliant mechanics, you have one piece that allows movement without friction. This gives you greater precision," Kim explained.

In addition to gaining research experience, the students said the program allowed them to learn about the United States and to teach American students about France. Coussement and Ngningha had never visited the United States before. All of the students participated in activities sponsored by the Campus Activities & Programs Center, such as an ice cream social and two visits to New York City.  

"This was an opportunity to improve my language skills, to learn about a new country and to work on a really big project," said Coussement, who will graduate from Polytech'Tours in May.  

Ngningha, who is studying electrical engineering in France, said the internship provided him with training that technically is outside of his field. As a part of their studies, the students must complete three apprenticeships.

"This was a great experience for me. Engineers must be able to manage many different projects and understand different (aspects) of engineering," he said.

Chizat Saint-Lager said she also gained invaluable training in a field she knew little about and got a taste of campus life.

"There is no real campus in Tours," Coussement explained. "It is a city, so everything is spread out."

Contact: Division of Communications