The Filipina Scientist Who Led a Japanese Robotics Team to Victory
It was September 26, 2009. Angelyn Mercado was supposed to meet her friends and celebrate her 20th birthday. Instead, she was trapped in their house. It had been raining non-stop for a half a day and the flood water had already submerged the ground floor of their house. Typhoon Ondoy had been merciless.
She was in the second floor but the water still climbed. She and her family were stuck in the house without electricity and nowhere to go. The water continued to rise. Thankfully, their relatives came to the rescue and they escaped by climbing through the windows and sliding down the roof.
When she found out later on what happened to the rest of the metro, Angelyn considered herself lucky. More than 740 people perished because of Typhoon Ondoy.
The tragedy made a lasting impact on the Computer Science student.
Angelyn Mercado together with her professor and adviser, Dr. Kazuo Ishii, on graduation day.
“If only people could have been spotted and rescued right in time, the death toll could have been lower,” she says.
But was there a way to find people in tumultuous flood water? The answer she came up with was robots. “There are places where you humans can’t go but robots can like 200-meter deep seas. It’s more efficient to send a robot when lives are on the line,” she adds.
That’s how her journey studying and working on autonomous underwater vehicles started.
Finding a Robotics School
Angelyn’s love for robotics started when she was a high school student at St. Theresa’s College, Quezon City. The school had an elective for robotics which she took out of curiosity. She had been fascinated at how robots can make work more efficient.
“If I can find a way to automate tasks instead of doing it manually, I can do so much more with my time,” she says.
To learn robotics, Angelyn remembered using Lego Mind Storm, a kit that enables you to build robots using Lego blocks equipped with processors. She excelled at it and she even led the school’s team at an interschool Robotics Olympiad. Unfortunately, she was over the age limit for the competition, so she served as their team’s mentor instead.
The Kyushu Institute of Technology Robotics Team
Her interest in robotics didn’t waver in college, which is why she pursued Computer Science at the University of the Philippines. After graduating with honors, she worked for a few years in multinational companies before remembering what she set out to do—make a difference in people’s lives, especially in times of disaster.
“My brother introduced me to the MEXT Scholarship. If I was accepted, I had to choose my top three schools. Just by internet research, I found out that the Kyushu Institute of Technology in Fukuoka, Japan was offering a program in robotics,” she explains.
It took her almost a year to apply for the program but it was worth it. In 2015, she was granted a full scholarship which includes a monthly allowance, enough to pay for an apartment and her daily expenses in Japan. Around 30 students were granted the scholarship that year and she was the only one who was going to study robotics. “It would really be helpful if more Philippine universities have exchange programs about science courses like robotics,” she says.
For her first few months in Japan, she had to intensively study Nihongo, the Japanese language. This was required so she can understand the lectures which was taught in Nihongo.
“What we learned was conversational Nihongo, however during the lectures, our professors were using very technical terms. It was difficult because I always had to go over the slides,” she remembers.
The team with their AUV robot
Despite the language barrier, Angelyn proved to be an exceptional student. Dr. Kazuo Ishii, her professor and adviser, even entrusted her to present her research about Deep Sea Image Enhance Using Retinex with Reverse Color Use at the prestigious OCEANS conference which was jointly sponsored by the IEEE Oceanic Engineering Society (IEEE/OES) and the Marine Technology Society. This international conference is a major forum for scientists and engineers to gather and exchange their knowledge and ideas regarding the future of the world’s oceans. Angelyn was the sole representative of her school.
Aside from speaking at conferences, she was also tasked to join the school team who competed both in local and international robotics competitions. One of which is the 20th Annual International RoboSub Competition held in San Diego, California in July, 2017. For this competition, they worked with an AUV or autonomous underwater vehicle. They were not completely successful, so they vowed that they will bounce back in the next competition.
Their next challenge was the Okinawa Open Sea Competition. Their AUV robot had to accomplish a path in the Okinawa Sea with an unstable current. For this competition, Angelyn was assigned to be the team leader of a group of students who were all Japanese and Korean.
The school team: Fujinaga-san, Nam-san, Angelyn, Tominaga-san, Tanaka-san, Shinoki-san, Senmyou-san, Tamaki-san
“We had to update the software of the robot for the competition. It took us two months to tweak the operating system,” she says.
“The competition was different from the others since the environment here is not controlled. We had to deploy it in the open sea. This time, factors such as currents and objects are more unpredictable,” she adds.
At the end of the three-day competition, their group emerged victorious. They won second place—one of the two teams who were able to finish the path and tasks assigned to the robots competing. The robots from the other schools were not able to move at all, Angelyn recalls.
“I am thankful that the support from our professors was impeccable and that my team trusted me despite our different backgrounds and cultures. It was hard because of the language barrier. The Korean was good at English so when I have instructions, I would tell it to him and he would translate the instructions to our Japanese teammates,” she says.
Fear of Automation and Robotics
Angelyn got her Masters of Engineering in Robotics degree in 2018. She was encouraged by her professors to stay in Japan, but she decided to come back to the Philippines, bearing in mind her original goal.
Her first idea was to pass on her knowledge about robotics by teaching in high school or universities. That’s when she realized that universities had no solid program in robotics—“It’s offered as electives or workshops but there is no degree program for robotics offered by the leading universities,” she says.
Angelyn explains that this is also okay because students need to specialize first in related fields such as Computer Science, Mechanical Engineering, and Electronics Engineering. However, higher studies of robotics is gravely needed in the country because our neighboring Asian countries are already leaving us behind in this aspect.
“We don’t even have our own AUV,” she says, noting that it’s not a priority of the government to buy robots. “We need money and support from the government to create our own. The most basic remotely operated vehicle is around USD10,000 and customizing it will be more expensive because you have to order parts from different companies in the US, Australia, and France.”
One of the reasons why the government or Filipinos in general don’t embrace robotics is maybe because they’re afraid of change, Angelyn said. For a country highly dependent on skilled workers, the thought of robots taking over jobs is a threat to the labor force.
“What they don’t realize is that the benefits outweigh those fears. It’s sad that many Filipinos are interested in robotics and some even study it abroad but they don’t come back to the country because of the lack of support,” she says.
Currently, Angelyn is helping a marine science research program that will involve use of underwater vehicles. Aside from this, she plans to establish a robotics program in the country and create a company that can research and create robots that would help in rescue operations especially in times of floods and crisis.
“Other Asian countries are leaving us behind. I think we’re the only Southeast Asian country without a proper robotics program. We have to step up our game and we can start with educating the new generation.”