Shokoofeh Pourmehr working on unmanned ground vehicle robots during her co-op work placement at Clearpath Robotics. The photo, taken by Dora Poon, won an honourable mention in SFU's 50th Anniversary Co-op Photo Contest.

Shokoofeh Pourmehr: programming robot minds

March 01, 2016

You could call Shokoofeh Pourmehr the robot whisperer.  

The PhD in computing science student’s research focuses on human-robot interaction (HRI), a field of robotics that has captured the imagination of science fiction writers and academics for decades.

“We are working on creating intuitive interfaces to help a person catch a robot’s attention in a simple and practical way,” she says.

It turns out, you catch a robot’s attention in much the same way as you would another person’s – or a pet dog’s – by calling, waving and making eye contact.

And while significant research has been conducted into single agent human-robot interactions, Pourmehr is investigating less well-trodden territory of multi-robot, multi-human interactions.

The goal is to develop a communication system that can enable interaction and cooperation between teams of humans and robots in a dynamic environment – for example, to assist in a search and rescue operation, or to deal with environmental disasters.

VIDEO: Pourmehr and other researchers from SFU's Autonomy Lab talk about the process of developing intelligent and self-reliant robots.  

Pourmehr conducts her research at SFU’s Autonomy Lab. The lab, led by robotics expert Richard Vaughan, is part of the NSERC Canadian Field Robotics Network, which brings together government and industrial researchers to develop technologies for robots to work collaboratively outdoors.

The lab was a major draw for Pourmehr, who came to Canada from Tehran, Iran, in 2012 with a master’s degree in engineering. She has been fascinated by the immense potential of robotics ever since she co-created a simple line-following robot for an undergraduate robotics competition.

“I think robots can increase our living standards,” she says. “The way we can’t live without the Internet or cellphones nowadays, I believe the same will be true for robots one day.”

Shokoofeh was co-author of a paper nominated for the prestigious IROS 2013 awards. “You two! Take Off!” Creating, modifying and commanding groups of robots using face engagement and indirect speech in voice commands demonstrates a system for creating a group of robots of a desired number using voice commands and eye contact.

“Through this nomination, I saw how novel our work is in human and multi-robot interaction,” she says. “It was a simple and practical command system and it was wonderful that it was received and commended in that way.”

Pourmehr also completed a graduate co-op work term with the autonomy team at Clearpath Robotics in Kitchener, ON, where she worked on optimizing unmanned ground vehicles, including developing and implementing navigation and mapping software.

Once she completes her PhD, Pourmehr is open to continuing research in academia or industry. Her dream, she says, is “to one day of seeing my research incorporated into a robot available on the market.”