Featured Engineer

Interview with Thomas Adamek

Thomas Adamek

Thomas Adamek - Research Assistant Engineer – Robotics System Lab, Santa Clara University

  • Image: Doing some mapping with the ASV.
How did you get into electronics/ engineering and when did you start?

Robotics was always something that I’ve had an interest in. I remember when I was younger; anything that was connected to a motor and had wires with a power source was doomed to end up in front of me for further inspection with my father’s tools.

What are your favorite hardware tools that you use?

In terms of hardware tools, I don’t leave home without a laptop (w/serial to USB converter), voltmeter and some basic tools.

What are your favorite software tools that you use?


What is the hardest/trickiest bug you have ever fixed?

Locating a problem with wireless com link, it was a long standing problem was a thorn in people’s side for many years. It was really more about persistence, and ruling out the possibilities so we could narrow it down.

What is on your bookshelf?

Magazines- Nuts and volts, Economist, lots of manuals and catalogs. Hardcover- Introduction to Robotics, Applied Mechatronics, Thermal Design and for lighter reading, “Confessions on a Greenpeace dropout”

Do you have any tricks up your sleeve?

Flux, crimp then solder terminals for active field equipment to reduce potential loose connections. A time saver in the end when trying to find that one loose wire.

Do you have any tips on keeping wiring runs or wiring harness organized?

I still use those little wiring numbers that wrap around them to keep track. Occasionally a photo works as well.

What has been your favorite project?

Starting any new project that I know nothing about is something that I always look forward to working on, but if I had to choose one thing, it would be working with a research group in the Amazon Jungle. It was a much closed environment in terms of infrastructure, no roads, no phones, limited internet and the nearest store with the very basic electrical supplies was 8 hours by boat. I designed/repaired/installed communication towers, airplane landing gear, tracking systems, power grids, RFID tracking, generators, pumps, anything that had a wiring probably ended up across my table at one point or another.

Can you tell us a bit more about your trip to the Amazon?

I was traveling on an extended road trip and stopped in to visit my sister in the Jungle for a few weeks. Before I knew it, a few weeks turned into a few years. I became involved in a research project that was using radio and gps collars to track animals in the forest. In the end I was working as a support role dealing with 5 different groups and had one or two people helping me directly. Our total research group size was about 40 people.

Excerpt from my resume:

Nov. 2004-Sept 2008 WWF Consultant: Amazon Conservation Project, Peru TECHNICAL FIELD DIRECTOR-Designed & built communication towers, VHF repeater setups & remote power systems in observation & trapping towers. Data logger setup for VHF tracking systems (Collared Animals) RFID data logger tracking systems, 45-2000 watt Solar power systems for Laboratory & field applications. Design & cost study of mini 1500 watt hydro electric system. Computer data collection & IT support. Flew and maintained an Ultra-light aircraft for animal radio tracking in remote jungle location. Designed and supervised full construction of simple airplane hanger, structural, electrical, concrete. Designed and tested a float system for the UL using Solidworks.

Do you have any note-worthy engineering experiences?

The above project is definitely one of the note-worthy experiences. As for blowing up things, getting shocked, probably all of that has happened at one time or another and I did pay the stupid tax. In general I try to make sure everything is connected correctly, labeled and doubled checked, but sometimes things get overlooked. As my friend says, “I’ve let the smoke out of one or two things”

What are you currently working on?

Gradient sensing using multiple robots at Santa Clara University.

Multi-robot systems have the potential to exceed the performance of many existing robotic systems by taking advantage of the cluster’s redundancy, coverage and flexibility. These unique characteristics of multi-robot systems allow them to perform tasks such as distributed sensing, gradient climbing, and collaborative work more effectively than any single robot system. The purpose of this research was to augment the existing cluster space control technique in order to demonstrate effective gradient-based functionality; specifically, that of tracking gradient contours of specified concentration levels. To do this, we needed first to estimate the direction of the gradient and/or contourbased on the real-time measurements made by sensors on the distributed robots, and second, to steer the cluster in the appropriate direction.

Successful simulation, characterization, and experimental testing with the developed testbed have validated this approach. The controller enabled the cluster to sense and follow a contour-based trajectory in a parameter field using both a kayak cluster formation and also the land based Pioneer robots. The positive results of this research demonstrate the robustness of the cluster space control while using the contour following technique and suggest the possibility of further expansion with field applications.

What challenges do you foresee in our industry?

Automation and using robots will continue to grow as we find different applications and improve their technology. Power and reliability when looking at Autonmous Robots at all done at a lower cost. Right now many robots still need people to operate and function on a day-to -day basis so it will still be a few more years until it’s the other way around.

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