May I Help You?

Alumnus and Adjunct Professor, May Swangnetr, uses robots to assist and protect workers

May Swangnetr launched her academic career at Khon Kaen University in Khon Kaen, Thailand. From there, she moved to Raleigh, NC and attended NC State where she received her PhD in industrial engineering in 2010. Her dissertation focused on patient-robot interaction in healthcare tasks (she published this work in IEEE Transactions on Human-Machine Systems earlier this year).

This year, May took a post-doctoral research associate position at the University of Rostock in Germany at the renowned Center for Life Science Automation (CELISCA). CELISCA is a world-class research facility for design and development of advanced automated systems for processes, including: high-throughput screening of organic compounds as bases for drug-derivative development; screening of inorganic materials for toxic chemicals with environmental importance; and rapid cell culturing systems for integration in regenerative medicine processes. Dr. Kerstin Thurow (one of ISE’s new adjunct faculty members) and Dr. Norbert Stoll, a long-time research partner of NC State, manages CELISCA. May’s role at CELISCA focuses on optimizing human-automation interaction in delivering the complex science processes the Center has designed. Part of her position includes spending some time back at NC State.

In collaboration with ISE Professor David Kaber, May planned a research project to effectively add robotics to a process for analyzing the mercury content in old treated wood. This process is used in Germany to ensure the proper disposal of materials from dilapidated or demolished structures because Germany has strict regulations on disposal of treated lumber to prevent water table contamination. The advantages of using robots to perform this process include reduced chemical exposure to operators and increased efficiency and accuracy in materials handling.

May’s approach was to first conduct a task analysis on the manual process, verify the analysis with expert operators and collect operator performance and workload data for every step in the process. She then developed a human performance model including identification of visual, motor and cognitive operations for each step. May used the model to identify those steps posing the greatest demands on the operators. These steps represent “targets for automation,” specifically the use of humanoid robots, like the Dr Robot H20, with the capability to manipulate and transport samples like a human operator and to keep track of process steps through communication with a process control system.

May’s notion is that for physical operations requiring tracking of many objects and a high degree of accuracy in handling, the H20 can be used along with other specialized robots to reduce operator physical demands. For mentally demanding operations, her model is for the H20 to act as a reminder system to the technician as they progress through task steps; like a hygienist might do for a dentist.

Last fall, May returned to the ISE Department to work with Ergonomics Lab researchers on using a computational cognitive modeling and simulation tool (E-GOMSL) developed by David Kaber and another ISE PhD graduate. May transformed her existing human performance model to a computational form in order to simulate technician behavior in the mercury analysis process with the H20 applied to specific process steps. The E-GOMSL tool has the capability to generate stochastic estimates of task times along with indices of operator visuo-motor and cognitive loads. These outputs of the human simulation and modeling efforts will be used to direct engineering initiatives at CELISCA for automation of specific steps in the mercury analysis process.

This summer, May plans to use advanced workload analysis techniques with the lab technicians at CELISA. This additional data is to be used as a basis for further direction of the automation systems engineering on-going at CELISCA. The ISE Department looks forward to the results of May’s visit this past year and extends an invitation to other grads to consider scholarly research visits.