Half of the summer is gone with little research to show. What I do have is a test track for the robot, a second generation robot under development, and full autonomy tests on the horizon for the current platform. At the end of every week I look at my progress and ask one question: what should I work on next week? What follows is how I try to balance and make sense of the daily logistics requirements, ongoing infrastructure development, and the need for research progress on my current robotics project. How to answer this question is more important than ever to me because I start a new program in the fall.
As a PhD student, my job is to solve important unsolved problems in my field to increase human knowledge by some measurable amount. I think these illustrations put it into perspective.
Concerning my weekly work, I try to maximize the likelihood that my robot will do something no other robot has done before (drive itself very fast). From my experience, the single largest factor determining success for robotics projects is to start with solid hardware and software infrastructure. This includes properly set up test space, a reliable platform, and core software to abstract out hardware interaction, data routing, and visualization. I will admit that my perspective is skewed toward software. As mentioned in an earlier post, we are building our system using ROS, which a great example of how core technologies enable successful project development. Just take a look at all the awesome projects people are listing on the ROS website.
I estimate that upwards of 80% of the time on my current project is dedicated to infrastructure development and testing. We could have used a more balanced time allocation approach and pushed early on for a fully autonomous demo, but it would have been a shell. Further, that would slow the overall progress of the project beyond that demo. Corners cut in the drive to the specific goal leaves important components in shambles and inoperable under all but ideal conditions requiring constant tuning.
I don’t believe this is how successful long-term robotics projects should progress, and I keep that in mind every week when I plan. I believe that taking the time to develop bulletproof infrastructure in the beginning leads to awesome, repeatable demos later. As the saying goes, there is no shortcut to success.