Celebrating Vanier Scholar Alexander Krawciw

Alexander Krawciw standing on the field behind an offroad robotics vehicle

Alexander Krawciw, a PhD student in the Autonomous Space Robotics research group at U of T, achieves the prestigious Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship (Vanier CGS), underscoring his promising contributions to advancing robotics technology. The Vanier CGS are awards designed to attract and support exceptional doctoral students across Canada.

Under the mentorship of Professor Tim Barfoot, Krawciw is introducing novel approaches to enhancing offroad field robots. His research focuses on detecting and navigating hazards within complex and cluttered terrains, a formidable challenge that demands innovative solutions.

“This is quite a messy problem as we don’t know what the hazards may be and they are hard to discern due to the offroad nature of the problem,” Barfoot remarks.

Employing a machine learning framework, Krawciw aims to equip robots with the capability to autonomously identify and avoid obstacles, thereby enhancing their efficiency and safety in unpredictable environments.

Barfoot highlights Krawciw’s exceptional qualities that distinguish him within his field and contributed to his attainment of the Vanier scholarship. Beyond his academic prowess, Krawciw’s insatiable curiosity and proactive engagement in scholarly discourse set him apart. His voracious reading habits and eagerness to share insights with peers exemplify a deep commitment to advancing knowledge within his research community.

The Vanier CGS stands to significantly bolster Krawciw’s research endeavors. This support is poised to catalyze his impact, facilitating advancements in offroad robotics while opening doors to new opportunities and collaborations on a national and international scale.

As Krawciw continues to evolve as a researcher and innovator in offroad robotics, his dedication to leveraging machine learning for hazard detection and his innate ability to absorb and apply new knowledge underscore a future filled with transformative possibilities in autonomous systems.

Writer Jennifer Li caught up with Krawciw to learn about his experience, lessons, and journey pursuing his PhD at UTIAS.

  1. Can you describe the journey that led you to pursue a PhD in robotics engineering?

My journey to pursue robotics engineering started in high school, when I participated in the FIRST Tech Challenge. That experience introduced me to hardware design as well as the basics of core navigation algorithms. For my undergraduate degree, I majored in mechanical engineering with a software engineering minor at the University of Victoria. By participating in co-op and student design teams, I gained hands-on skills in research and development which have been central to my work. I came to UTIAS to study robotics with Professor Barfoot to learn more about state estimation and to apply my research to offroad field robots.

  1. How do you see your research contributing to the broader field of robotics engineering?

I am currently investigating how to use continual learning to improve the performance of robots while they are deployed. Unstructured environments like forests, mines, and extra-terrestrial navigation are difficult to anticipate and simulate ahead of time. By allowing robots to improve on the job, they will become faster and easier to deploy. This research not only enhances logistical efficiency but also mitigates risks, thereby enhancing safety for personnel involved in hazardous environments today.

  1. What are you most looking forward to during your PhD program?

Experimentation with actual offroad vehicles is critical to validating that the algorithms that we are researching work in the real world. I’m looking forward to field testing with our vehicles. For example, this coming winter, we will be deploying to Foret Montmorency in Quebec to test the deep snow and dense forest capabilities of our autonomy system. As much as you can prepare for a deployment, you never know how the system will behave until you try it.

  1. How do you handle challenges and setbacks in your research, and what lessons have you learned from them?

I’m exploring the unpredictable nature of research progress. While it’s tempting to outline a comprehensive long-term plan, often the best approach is to immerse oneself in various ideas until a clear problem surfaces, ideally accompanied by a potential solution.

  1. What advice would you give to aspiring researchers or students looking to enter the field of robotics engineering?

Robotics is a fairly broad field with interdisciplinary contributions from across engineering, computer science, and social sciences. We’re making significant strides toward adopting robotic systems but there are still many unsolved problems, particularly when it comes to ensuring the safety of interactions between groups of robots and people. Researchers are encouraged to explore these diverse paths, as their innovations and insights will be the key to unlocking the full potential of robotics and transforming the future.