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Faculty spotlight: Associate Professor Mrinal Kumar

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Associate Professor Mrinal Kumar from the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering is featured in our series highlighting Aerospace Research Center faculty. Visit his Laboratory for Autonomy in Data-Driven and Complex Systems online to explore current research projects.

Question: Why did you choose your field of research?

Answer: I have always been fascinated by the role of mathematics as a unifier. Mathematics ties together fields that seem to be poles apart. I am often amazed by astrodynamicists who might well have been machine learning experts, and machine learning experts, who might well have been pioneers of fluid mechanics. My field of research, which is the quantification of uncertainty in complex engineering systems, allows me the singularly unique opportunity to exercise creativity in disparate areas of application. To an engineer like myself, mathematics is never “just math” – it is what helps connect science to the real world. For me, the mathematics of uncertainty quantification has realized amazing projects in space domain awareness, renewable energy, smart manufacturing, wildfire monitoring and autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles. I wouldn’t trade this for anything else.

Q: Describe one of your current projects. 

A: In a collaborative research effort, we are attempting to improve the science of wildland fire behavior by conducting autonomous missions of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) in controlled burn projects. This collaborative effort is funded by the National Robotics Initiative 3.0 Program of the National Science Foundation. It is bringing together researchers, practitioners, educators and students from the disciplines of weather and environmental science, forestry, autonomous robotics and uncertainty quantification. Using UAS data collected before, during and after prescribed burns, we are helping better characterize the very nature of fire, its size, temperature and rate of spread. On the flip side, multidisciplinary integration is allowing us to elevate the science of autonomy of aerial platforms in unstructured, uncertain and hazardous environments. Our educational objectives for this project are geared toward accentuating a constructive context for autonomous robotics. We are engaged in the development of instructional and public outreach material related to prescribed burning, its benefits and the potential of autonomous robots in improving its state of practice.

Q: What is the most rewarding part of your job? 

A: This one is easy: the most rewarding part of my job is working with our incredible students and building collaborative teams.

Q: What advice would you give to incoming graduate students?

A: Graduate school is about perseverance. In graduate school and in research, things are “not supposed to work” for the most part. This just indicates that the problems you are solving are worthwhile! But things will eventually work – and what will take you there is your patience and persistence.

Q: What is special about the Aerospace Research Center?

A: The aerospace research center is a sanctuary, where faculty, research scientists and students come together to create new knowledge. Away from the bustle of Ohio State’s main campus, it is a place where time slows down just a little, and its serene surroundings offer its participants the perfect backdrop to practice their art. The center is unique in that it brings together under the same umbrella the world’s leading experts in experimental, computational and theoretical research in key areas of aerospace engineering.  

Q: What keeps you inspired? 

A: The fact that there is always an easier and better way of doing things.


Read more faculty spotlights and learn about current research initiatives by visiting the center’s research overview webpage linked here.