Photograph by Noe Montes

Haylee Mota Can Only See Light and Shadows. Yet She Sees So Much More.

USC Viterbi sophomore reimagines telepresence robots for the visually impaired.

Haylee Mota remembers the moment well. She was a curious and inquisitive 7-year-old in awe of the spaceships, rockets and fighter jets at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C., when she made up her mind that one day she would become an engineer.

However, the pathway to making that dream a reality involved a learning curve far beyond academics. The 19-year-old has not been able to see a rocket or a textbook since she was a child. Mota is blind, but she’s never lost sight of that childhood dream.

“I was born with Leber congenital amaurosis,” Mota said.

Leber congenital amaurosis is a rare genetic disorder that prevents light-gathering cells in the retina from functioning properly. The disorder is degenerative, causing Mota’s vision loss to become more severe over time. While blindness is often presented as a completely incapacitating disability, Mota has not let it slow her down.

“You only live once, so don’t let anything hold you back,” is her motto.

In the fall of 2021, with her guide dog Nicky, a 5-year-old golden retriever, by her side, the Rhode Island native decided to attend the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, thousands of miles away from her home and her family.

One of the first classes Mota enrolled in as a freshman was AME 101, taught by Professor Paul Ronney, chair of the Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering.   

“I was concerned about the hands-on part, but I didn’t want her to have a watered-down experience,” Ronney explained. “I told her I expect all the students to learn to use a band saw, a drill, a belt sander and to solder. I was expecting her to say, ‘How can I do that?’ At which point she said, ‘Well, I have done all of those, except solder.’” 

Ronney and Mota worked together to find solutions. Whether it was physically etching graphs onto acrylic so that Mota could feel the points or 3D printing parts for her to touch and measure for a CAD assignment project, Ronney says he was impressed at how quickly Mota learned and adapted. By the end of the fall semester Mota was thriving in AME 101. The two stayed connected and the following semester Ronney put Mota in touch with another USC Viterbi professor.

Satyandra K. Gupta, who holds the Smith International Professorship in Mechanical Engineering, encouraged Mota to apply to the 2022 Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. Once selected, Mota chose to work in Gupta’s lab on assistive robotics technology. 

“I have always been interested in assistive technologies and seeing how they can help people with different disabilities,” said Gupta, who has a daughter with autism. “I understand the challenges that people with disabilities face.”   

For the summer program, Mota decided to focus her research on making telepresence robots accessible for the visually impaired. Think of telepresence robots as videoconference technology on wheels. The user’s face appears on the robot’s screen, and a camera on the robot allows the user at home to select a point in the room for the robot to navigate autonomously. The problem? Navigation requires users to actually see the room on a screen.

Mota’s solution? Rely instead on the sense of touch.   

“I took a haptic device, and I sent that device an image of the room the robot was in — the user is then able to feel all the objects in the room,” Mota explained. “Once you’ve felt all the objects, you can then determine where you want the robot to navigate, and then you can press a button and send the robot to that point.”

Mota plans to further her interest and research in haptics technology. Last fall, she began working in the Haptics Robotics and Virtual Interaction (HaRVI) Laboratory on campus.

As her journey to becoming an engineer continues, Mota’s childhood love of rockets and spaceships continues to drive her. This past summer, she was able to tour NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena through the REU program. Now a sophomore, Mota plans to work in the field of propulsion and fluid dynamics once she graduates.   

“People think you can’t do certain things because of your disability and that just annoys me,” Mota explained. “I’m stubborn, and I don’t like to be told what to do or what I can’t do by other people.”