ECE Student Perspectives: David Black, BMIAI Fall Research Award winner

“Bringing a robot to life and getting it to interact with its environment is always exciting and satisfying.”

David Black is a PhD student at Electrical and Computer Engineering. Under the supervision of Tim Salcudean, David researches control and artificial intelligence in medical robots. His recent presentation at the 2021 BMIAI conference, “Human Teleoperation: A Haptically-Enabled Mixed Reality Interface for Teleultrasound”, won BMIAI’s Fall Research Showcase research award.

We spoke to him to learn more about his award-winning research, his career, and what excites him about the future of medical robotics technology.

Congratulations! How do you feel about this award?

Thank you, I’m excited to have been selected! I thought all the presentations were very interesting and well done, and I enjoyed meeting and talking to various students and faculty after. Winning an award at the end was an added bonus!

What has your career path looked like so far? How did you end up at ECE, and why did you choose our department?

I did my undergrad in Engineering Physics at UBC. During that time, I developed an interest in research and medical robotics, through work at Carl Zeiss Meditec AG in Germany and a local robotics start-up, as well as a lab in Germany, at the BC Cancer Research Centre, and with ECE’s Prof. Tim Salcudean. After finishing my bachelor’s degree, it was clear to me that I wanted to do research at the intersection of medical robotics and imaging. Prof. Salcudean’s lab occupies exactly this space, and I knew and liked the people in the lab. Additionally, I love Vancouver and its proximity to the mountains (where I spend most of my free time), so graduate studies under Prof. Salcudean seemed like the ideal next step. I was lucky enough to publish some of my work in journals and conferences throughout my undergraduate studies, so I was able to start as a direct-entry PhD student in ECE, exactly two days after finishing the last exam of my undergrad.

What do you study?

My research focuses on control and artificial intelligence in medical robotics. The Robotics and Control Lab is uniquely equipped with novel force sensing technology, which is built into the da Vinci Surgical System that we use. With this setup, we can investigate control architectures for haptic feedback in robotic surgery, and can use force data in reinforcement learning to train the robot to carry out tasks such as suturing autonomously. We are applying the same concepts to develop a novel control framework, which leverages mixed reality and 5G to effectively use a human as a flexible, safe, and cognitive robot for tele-medicine applications such as tele-ultrasound.  The basic premise is that a person wears a mixed reality headset which projects a holographic virtual tool into their space. They then follow the tool, which is controlled in real time by a remote expert, with their own real one. In this work, haptics, teleoperation, and artificial intelligence again play a key role. This latter project is what I presented for the BMIAI event.

How did you get started studying this topic?

I first took an interest in surgical robotics quite a few years ago, because my dad uses surgical robots in his practice. The broad nature of Engineering Physics allowed me to take courses and work on projects in all aspects of robotics, from hardware to electrical design to software, and to take physics courses where my interest for medical imaging was born. Engineering Physics is also fairly math-heavy, which leads well into robotics, controls, and AI. Thus, I gained this very multidisciplinary set of interests, and I was fortunate to find an impactful field of study that involves all of these topics.

What interests you most about your research?

I really enjoy the multidisciplinary nature of my work. One day I might be coding, while the next day I might design a mechanical part, and then outfit it with an electrical system, all with the underlying physics of the application in mind. In addition, bringing a robot to life and getting it to act in a certain way and actually interact with its environment is always exciting and satisfying- when it works! Ultimately a lot of my research involves looking at how a human interacts with a robot or computer in new ways, and drawing biological parallels- for example, the parallels between human versus machine intelligence or sensory perception- or even controlling a person as one would usually control a robot – which I find fascinating.  Finally, it is very rewarding to work towards goals that could actually impact people and improve their healthcare and lives.

What’s something people wouldn’t expect about your research topic?

Though we live in one of the world’s most prosperous countries, almost a fifth of Canadians live in rural communities which have substandard access to healthcare. This is especially problematic in many First Nations communities where government healthcare is not necessarily delivered in a culturally sensitive manner. My research topic aims to address both these issues by allowing people to access healthcare in their own homes, delivered by people they trust, and teleoperated by experts.

Learn more about David’s work at his Github portfolio.