Wolfgang Fink, Ph.D.

AIMBE College of Fellows Class of 2012
For outstanding contributions in the field of ophthalmology and vision sciences with particular focus on diagnostics and artificial vision systems.

‘Star Wars’ Science: How Would BB-8 Work?

Via Arizona | December 9, 2015

The real star of the upcoming "Star Wars" movie may not be a human or a Wookie. Instead, it may be a round, 2-foot-tall astromech droid named BB-8.

It may look great on the screen, but could BB-8 exist in real life?

University of Arizona researcher Wolfgang Fink would know, as an expert in artificially intelligent Mars rovers — and as an unabashed "Star Wars" fan.

Fink, who spends an extraordinary amount of time around robots, has done his share of thinking about the astromech droids seen in the franchise. And with J.J. Abrams’ "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" opening in theaters on Dec. 18, Fink is focused on BB-8.

Compared to that of R2-D2 and C-3PO from previous "Star Wars" incarnations, the design of BB-8 has "a striking advantage," Fink says.

"R2-D2 is on three legs and rolls around, so the challenge there would be if you have rugged terrain. Now, of course, C-3PO is a humanoid robot and can climb just like we do," he says.

Fink is an associate professor of electrical, computer and biomedical engineering at the UA, as well as the Keonjian Endowed Chair in Microelectronics. In his lab, he designs and builds artificially intelligent, autonomous Mars rovers. But as he reflects on his love of "Star Wars" in an intentionally dim office, he wields a crimson-red light saber that vacillates between a dull hum and a piercing whoosh as he waves it left to right.


Building Curiosity Into Technology

Via U. Arizona | August 27, 2015

The year is 2045.

Geologists have landed on various bodies in the solar system and are exploring alien landscapes. On Mars, a geologist climbs up a slope after spotting a peculiar-looking rock. On Saturn’s moon Titan, a blimp glides through the brown haze, surveying the methane lakes below while directing another explorer to cross the lake and investigate an odd feature sticking out above the surface.

These planetary geologists are not human. They’re robots, built in various shapes and forms. Some are rovers, others hover in the atmosphere and others float. All have one thing in common: They are hardwired to explore the unknown. They are curious.
Unlike conventional planetary rovers, which are basically cameras on wheels controlled by humans on Earth, these new planetary explorers go about their work autonomously, capable of making decisions on their own.

“In environments where you need a curious explorer with the ability to spot unusual and interesting objects, but you either can’t or don’t want to send humans, you have to rely on robots with a built-in sense of curiosity and the ability to make decisions autonomously,” said Wolfgang Fink, who heads the Visual and Autonomous Exploration Systems Research Laboratory at the University of Arizona’s College of Engineering.

“To accomplish this, we have to instill algorithms in the robot that will create ‘excitement’ about an object if it is different from the surrounding environment.”


Wolfgang Fink Named Da Vinci Fellow For 2015

Via Arizona Engineering | December 7, 2014

Like many men of science, Wolfgang Fink works in diverse disciplines and enjoys eclectic avocations. He’s a physicist, an engineer, an educator, an inventor, a licensed helicopter pilot and a classically trained pianist. You might call him a Renaissance man.

Fink, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and biomedical engineering and inaugural Edward & Maria Keonjian Endowed Chair at the UA College of Engineering, has been recognized as the da Vinci Fellow for 2015 — a major College of Engineering honor named for the ultimate Renaissance man.

Each year, the College selects one member of the Engineering faculty as a da Vinci Fellow in recognition of excellence in teaching or research excellence. The award includes a one-time grant of $10,000 for teaching and research.

“I am very humbled to be named da Vinci Fellow for 2015,” said Fink, who holds joint appointments in the UA departments of systems and industrial engineering, aerospace and mechanical engineering and ophthalmology and vision science. “This award will enable me to pursue bold new ideas that might be considered speculative by funding agencies or are beyond their purview.”


UA Engineering Turns Smartphones Into Eye-Screening Tools

Via UA News | November 26, 2014

University of Arizona researchers are developing technology that converts smartphones into powerful eye-examining instruments that could prevent millions of people from going blind.

Wolfgang Fink, professor of electrical and computer engineering and biomedical engineering, is principal investigator of a new project funded by the National Science Foundation Partnerships for Innovation: Building Innovation Capacity program to create “smart ophthalmoscopes,” specialized instruments for examining various parts of the eye’s interior. The devices, which can be attached to any smartphone, and accompanying software will enable health care providers, particularly in remote areas, to quickly and easily determine if patients are at risk of losing their vision.

The need is great. The World Health Organization has estimated that of the 285 million people worldwide who are visually impaired, 39 million are blind. Tragically, nearly 80 percent of this blindness is caused by treatable conditions such as cataracts, glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy. Available treatments can slow and even stop the progression of vision loss when these conditions are caught early enough.

But for those in remote areas — rural populations, boat crews and military service personnel, for example — eye exams are not readily available, and patients who do reach medical centers often arrive too late.


A New Tool in the Search for Extraterrestrial Life: A Tricked-Out Point-and-Shoot

Via U. Arizona News | February 7, 2014

The next time a NASA rover blasts off to explore Mars or some other planet, it might be equipped with a new type of “do-it-all” camera developed by an engineering team at the University of Arizona.

The prototype of the “Astrobiological Imager” – described in a research paper featured on the cover of a recent issue of the journal Astrobiology – consists of an off-the-shelf digital point-and-shoot camera with some surprisingly simple modifications. A slightly more sophisticated version, mounted on a rover, could do what even NASA’s latest and greatest Mars rover, Curiosity, can’t: identify, photograph and even analyze patches of soil or rocks from afar and in extreme close-up, all with the same camera.

The team figured out how to take advantage of different lens adapters that can be mounted in front of a single camera to enable it to take images ranging from a macroscopic scale – think landscape – all the way down to a microscopic scale – think cells and bacteria – thus spanning at least six orders of magnitude.
“For each scale, there is of course one or even several imagers that are superior to our instrument for that particular scale,” said Wolfgang Fink, an associate professor in the UA Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering who led the project. “However, there is no instrument out there that can go across several orders of magnitude.”

Fink explained: “Think of the world’s best decathlete as opposed to the world record holders in each individual discipline. That’s the best analogy. Our camera is the best decathlete.”


Breakthrough in Retinal Implants Expected to Restore Sight to the Blind

Via Arizona Engineer | November 1, 2013

Retinal implants have not lived up to their potential, argues a joint UA-German research team, until now.
Researchers at the University of Arizona and University of Tübingen have made a breakthrough in retinal implant technology that could help people who have lost their sight see more than just light and vague shapes.

Wolfgang Fink, an associate professor in the UA departments of electrical and computer engineering and biomedical engineering, is researching new implant design and methods of electrical stimulation of the retina that will enable implants to produce much clearer images.

Fink conducted the research jointly with Erich Schmid, professor emeritus of theoretical atomic and nuclear physics at the University of Tübingen, Germany. Fink will present the team’s findings in San Diego during the Nov. 6-8, 2013 IEEE International Conference on Neural Engineering, organized by the Engineering in Medicine & Biology Society.

Only a handful of companies and research institutions worldwide are developing retinal implants, which stimulate surviving retinal cells in people who have lost their sight due to common degenerative diseases such as macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa. Implant patients can usually detect the presence of light, but the images they perceive are very low resolution.

“Current technologies and methods are far behind what can be done,” said Fink, who is working with Tech Launch Arizona to patent the new technology and license it to retinal implant developers.


Robotic Lake Lander Could Explore Bodies of Water on Other Planets

Via Gizmag | March 21, 2012

Ask someone to picture a robotic roving vehicle, and chances are they’ll think of something with wheels, like the Mars Rover. If an alien civilization were sending a craft to explore Earth, however, they might be better off using a boat – after all, the majority of our planet’s surface is covered with water. Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, similarly has a pretty wet surface, as it contains lakes of liquid hydrocarbon. Wolfgang Fink, an engineer with the University of Arizona, has designed an aquatic rover for exploring those lakes.


University of Arizona’s TEX II is a Seaworthy Autonomous Robot Designed for Other Planets

Via The Verge | March 20, 2012

It might be a long ways off from breaking any world records, but the Tucson Explorer II could help pave the way for exploring bodies of liquid on other planets, and usher in a new era of robotic teamwork. Developed by University of Arizona professor Wolfgang Fink, TEX II is a prototype of an autonomous pontoon boat, and is equipped with a myriad of sensors and cameras to record and relay data. Nothing we haven’t really seen before in an autonomous bot, but Fink has grander plans for the seafaring data collector.


UA Engineer Launches Robotic Planetary Lake Lander

Via UA News | March 16, 2012

Wolfgang Fink of the University of Arizona department of electrical and computer engineering has developed an autonomous robotic lake lander that could be used to explore this planet and others.

Fink unveiled the lake lander, named Tucson Explorer II, or TEX II, in a paper titled “Robotic Lake Lander Test Bed for Autonomous Surface and Subsurface Exploration of Titan Lakes,” which he presented March 8 at an aerospace conference organized by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in Big Sky, Mont.

Fink presented TEX II as an autonomous exploration vehicle that potentially could be used to explore the lakes of liquid hydrocarbon known to exist on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.


UA Engineering Professor Connects His Work in Medicine and Space

Via University of Arizona | March 6, 2012

Connections. University of Arizona physicist Wolfgang Fink, Ph.D., constantly makes them as he pursues research in medicine, space exploration and robotics.

The energetic associate professor embraces connections that enhance investigations into his varied interests. He enthusiastically pursues private- and public-sector connections that can turn his discoveries into marketable products.

The down-to-earth Fink, 43, is director of the UA Visual and Autonomous Exploration Systems Research Laboratory. He holds the Edward & Maria Keonjian Endowed Chair in Microelectronics.

He has joint appointments in the UA College of Engineering departments that deal with biomedical, electrical and computer, and systems and industrial engineering, as well as ophthalmology and vision science.

The spectacled German native is a visiting associate in physics at the California Institute of Technology and holds professorships in ophthalmology and neurological surgery at the University of Southern California.

His research passion lies in autonomous robotics for space exploration with an assist from work in artificial retinas for humans.


UA Professor’s Autonomous Robotic Space Exploration Research Featured in Science Magazine

Via Arizona Engineer | August 3, 2010

Science magazine recently published an article featuring UA professor Wolfgang Fink’s research on using intelligent robots for planetary exploration.

Science was founded in 1880 using seed money provided by Thomas Edison, and has grown into the world’s most widely read general science journal, with more than a million readers worldwide.

The main thrust of the July 30 Science article, “Making Smarter, Savvier Robots” by Sam Kean, was that “robots are pretty dumb” and must rely on scientists back on Earth to control their exploratory missions. Kean pointed out that only a few dozen scientists are developing robots with true high-level independence that enables them to avoid danger while investigating planetary features of their own choosing.

One of those scientists is Wolfgang Fink, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and biomedical engineering, who holds the Edward and Maria Keonjian Endowed Chair in the College of Engineering, and directs the Visual and Autonomous Exploration Systems Research Laboratory. He also has a joint appointment in the UA department of ophthalmology and vision science.


Caltech Scientist to Join UA Engineering Faculty

Via U. Arizona News | October 15, 2009

Edward Keonjian, the “father of microelectronics,” would have been 100 years old on Aug. 14, 2009.

To mark his centennial, the University of Arizona College of Engineering has announced the establishment of the Edward and Maria Keonjian Distinguished Professorship in Microelectronics, the result of a million-dollar endowment by Keonjian and his wife Maria. The first person named to the new post is Wolfgang Fink, who will move to UA from the California Institute of Technology.

Fink is a senior researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the founder and director of the Visual and Autonomous Exploration Systems Research Laboratory at Caltech where he is a visiting associate in physics in the division of physics, mathematics and astronomy. He also holds concurrent appointments as visiting research associate professor of ophthalmology and neurological surgery at the University of Southern California.

Fink’s interest in human-machine interfaces, autonomous/reasoning systems and evolutionary optimization has focused his research programs on biomimetic, or implantable, systems, biomedical sensor development, autonomous robotics, cognitive/reasoning system, artificial vision, computer-optimized design and autonomous space exploration.

Fink graduated summa cum laude in 1997 with a doctoral degree in theoretical physics from the Institute for Theoretical Physics at the Eberhard-Karls-University in Tübingen, Germany. He graduated with a bachelor’s and a master’s degrees in physics from the Georg-August-University in Göttingen, Germany.