Faculty of Engineering


Providing Healthy Living for All with the Power of Robots

In this edition of “Tell Us Teacher,” we spoke with Junior Associate Professor Sajid Nisar, a robotics specialist in the Department of Mechanical and Electrical Systems Engineering at the KUAS Faculty of Engineering.

Q:What was your childhood like? What were you interested in?

I was born and raised in a rural area near Islamabad, Pakistan. Surrounded by nature, it was deeply fascinating to see various kinds of birds and animals. I remember myself as a curious boy wondering how a kestrel—a bird belonging to the falcon family—could hover in the air before swooping down on its prey. I also had ample opportunity to observe the stars and airplanes in the night skies. I used to wonder how those airplanes could fly. I was not satisfied with the toys I would receive, so I used to create my own from the materials available to me, such as clay. That’s pretty much how I spent my childhood.

Q:What made you decide to enter the Faculty of Engineering when you went to college?

During high school, I came across an amazing book* in the library one day. It was about how airplanes fly. The most striking part of it was a chapter where the author explained airplane flight by giving examples from the flight of birds. That book inspired me so much that I decided to build my own airplane. Using the concepts explained in the book, I created a model airplane. I clearly remember extracting small DC motors from a broken Sony Tape Recorder to drive the propellers. I excitedly carried the airplane to the top of my house for its maiden flight. However, to my utter disappointment, it dropped like a rock. That was probably the first engineering project of my life!
Moving forward to college, my father wanted me to study medical science. But being a doctor held no appeal for me, although it is a very valued profession. My personal inclination was always to create things that could do some valuable work. My father allowed me to go to an engineering college, but he was not happy with this choice. Many years later, I was relieved when he told me that I made the right decision! After my undergraduate studies, I went on to study Mechanical Engineering at the University of Engineering and Technology Taxila, Pakistan; a school known for offering the best mechanical education in Pakistan.

*Birds and Planes: How They Fly by John Bryan Lewellen, 1953

Q:What kind of research did you do at university?

My fascination with airplanes continued in university as well. As a semester project, I developed a remotely controlled airplane which later won first place in a national design, build, and fly competition. My final thesis was also on the design of a landing gear system for light aircraft, which included a mechanism to retract the wheels into the airplane body after takeoff and extend them before landing. As you can imagine, landing gear is a critical component for the safe operation of airplanes because they need to work every time without fail. I was thrilled to work on this challenging topic.

Q:Why did you decide to study in Japan?

In the early years of my professional career, my interest gradually shifted from airplanes to robots. A major reason for this was an opportunity to lead a nationally-funded project related to the development of a surgical robotic training system.
Another reason I opted for Japan was my selection for the Japanese Government MEXT-Scholarship. At that time, I was also selected for another scholarship to study in the United States. However, that scholarship did not allow its applicants to choose a professor and university of their own choice. On contrary, the MEXT- Scholarship was more flexible, which led me to Japan.

Q:What were you impressed by when you came to Japan?

The Japanese people’s commitment and hospitality. I was deeply touched by how committed the Japanese people are to everything they do. I think that this is particularly true of their habit of steadily working toward improvement and perfection in their lives and their work. Also, Japanese hospitality is unique and unmatched anywhere else in the world. I have visited many countries and cultures, and I have yet to come across a more hospitable nation than Japan.

Q:Please tell me about your current research field.

My current research is about the design and development of robots for various human-centered applications, such as medical and assistance systems as well as wearable devices. I believe that robots will help humans in every sphere of life in the future, so my goal is to develop robots with clever designs (I call it mechanical intelligence) and empower them further with the latest innovations in the field of machine learning and artificial intelligence (software intelligence). This approach, which I developed during my Ph.D., focuses on combining mechanical and software intelligence to build robots that are smarter and more reliable than ever before. In the future, I want to develop autonomous surgical robots capable of performing advanced medical treatments without direct human intervention.

Q:Was there a turning point in your research? You also went to Stanford University to research for a time.

There have been several turning points in my research, but currently, I am looking forward to two highly anticipated milestones that robotics has yet to achieve. Those milestones are the creation of surgical robots with a sense of touch, and autonomy. To play my part in achieving the first milestone, I went to Stanford University during my Ph.D. as a JSPS Young Researcher and worked on the development of haptic technology for surgical robots. There, I investigated the effects of imparting an artificial sense of touch using wearable devices and their impact on an operator’s performance. That research is heading in a very promising direction, and I am keen to continue working on it at KUAS as well.


Q:What do you think is necessary to make Robotics technology a part of society?

In terms of the medical application of robotics, I desire to make this technology reliable, scalable, and affordable. If robots are not safe to use, no one will trust them. Similarly, if they cannot be altered easily in response to the needs of their application, they will not be efficient. Likewise, if they are not easily acquired, operated, and maintained, they will not be affordable. The last point is particularly relevant for developing countries and I am very keen to develop affordable medical robots. The robotics community has already made significant progress towards developing reliable surgical robots. However, there is still a lot to be done to make them scalable and affordable.

Q:What do you expect of your students at KUAS?

Ambition and self-esteem. I expect our students to develop a ‘Can-do’ spirit and be architects of their own destiny. They should seek to become more interactive, keener to learn diverse skills and knowledge, and have a certain level of confidence in their abilities. Japanese students are generally a bit reserved; I want to see my students at KUAS take on bold and ambitious challenges.

Q:How do you spend your days off?

I enjoy spending most of my time off with family. On weekends, I connect with my parents, help my kids with their studies, play sports with them, and sometimes go out for a dinner. However, my days off are also a good time for me to focus on creative work, such as writing research proposals and reviewing research articles.

My favorite Japanese food is Osaka-style “Okonomiyaki”. It is delicious!

Learn more about Dr. Sajid Nisar