Robotics PhD Logs: Katherine Skinner

Hi, I’m Katie Skinner, I’m a PhD candidate
at the Robotics Institute at the University of Michigan. So the goal of my
dissertation research is to advance perception of autonomous underwater
vehicles. Over 70% of the earth is covered by water, but there’s still so
much that we don’t know about the sea. We actually know more about the surface
of Mars than we do about our own seafloor and I want to change this.
Robots and autonomous systems can have a key role in telling us more about
underwater environments. You can design robots that go to the deepest parts of
the sea, and we can develop robots that can carry out large-scale efficient
surveys for environmental monitoring or search-and-rescue tasks. The imagery we
collect underwater looks much different than images that we can gather in air, so
because of water column effects like attenuation and back scattering, these
images are actually very degraded and this has a large impact on applying
computer vision algorithms that we developed for in-air applications to
underwater environments. My research focuses on restoring underwater images
so that we can improve the way that we generate large scale 3D reconstructions
or maps of the seafloor, and currently I’m applying this to coral reef systems
to be able to provide accurate 3D models of coral reefs to marine biologists who
might want to study these systems, and ultimately, I want to develop technology
that can enable us to learn more about subsea environments to gather a
large-scale 3d reconstruction and high-resolution maps of the seafloor, and
then to be able to automatically interpret what we’re seeing from these
maps to allow us to make informed decisions about how we should interact
in these environments. I’ve been able to work with many wonderful people and
organizations during my time in the Robotics Institute at Michigan. So my
research is focused in the Deep Robot Optical Perception Lab, which is advised
by Professor Matthew Johnson-Roberson, and through my work in the DROP Lab, I’ve
been able to collaborate on many interdisciplinary international teams of
researchers who are really experts in their fields, from marine archaeology to
marine biology. And being able to collaborate across disciplines has
really transformed the way that I view my research, and it’s changed the way
that I think about problems I want to solve.
At Michigan, it’s so easy to collaborate and work across different
labs and different departments, and in my time here, I’ve been able to collaborate
with the Ford Center for Autonomous Vehicles, which is focused on advancing
perception for self-driving cars. And even though this seems very different
than my work in marine robotics, I’ve actually found a lot of parallels
between the challenges that we face on land and the challenges that we face
underwater, and being able to to work across departments and in different labs
has really enriched my experience here at Michigan. Robots and intelligent
systems have great potential to push the bounds of what we’re currently capable
of achieving, so I hope to serve society by developing technology that can
improve safety for tasks that pose great risk to humans currently, or that
enable us to perform new tasks where humans can’t actually go right now, from
the deepest parts of the oceans to exploring planets in space. So my
favorite part about my Michigan experience has been the sense of
community that we have here in the Robotics Institute at Michigan, and I’ve
been so lucky to be able to watch the growth of the Robotics Institute, from my
first year, when we had only eight students, to now this year, when we have
over a hundred students. And even through this period of growth, we’ve been able to
maintain this tight-knit sense of community that’s so important to
enabling collaborations that will allow us to advance society. And, I feel very
fortunate for the connections that I’ve made here, and even though it’s been a
very challenging experience, it’s been so rewarding and I’m just extremely proud
to be part of the Robotics Institute at the University of Michigan.

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