Robots are quickly becoming a part of daily 21st century life, transforming how we approach manufacturing, medical services, national defense and transportation. Many technology leaders (most notably Bill Gates) have likened the current growth of robotics to the growth of the Internet in the 1980s.
Robots are now enlisted to heal people, explore outer space, aid emergency workers, support soldiers on the battlefield, teach our children, and keep our houses clean. Sales of manufacturing, medical and service robots are increasing at annual rates of more than 30 percent, creating both supply and new demand for more robots.
The seeds of the Oregon State University robotics program within the School of Mechanical, Industrial, and Manufacturing Engineering were planted when Belinda Batten, former head of the School of Mechanical, Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering, encouraged a group of students to participate in the 2005 DARPA grand challenge, blending robotics and autonomy to create a driver-less car. Using a chassis from an earlier student competition, the small team qualified for the semifinal stage, competing with programs that substantially outspent them.
In 2006, Batten hired Kagan Tumer, who came to Oregon State after a nine-year career as senior research scientist and group lead for the Intelligent Systems Division at NASA’s Ames Research Center. At that point, although individual researchers were well known for their research in artificial intelligence, computer vision, machine learning and other disciplines critical to robotics, the robotics program that exists today hadn’t yet been officially established. Batten and Tumer saw an opportunity to create a robotics program: “A robotics program can benefit both a university and society,” Tumer said. “By its multidisciplinary nature, a robotics program creates strong ties within a university. But looking at the bigger picture, robots can impact our lives. They can run into burning buildings to save people, they can reduce complications from surgery, they can help the elderly or disabled. But before that can happen, we need to get the robots out of the lab and into the real world.”
In 2006, Tumer led the job search to hire the first robotics faculty member, which resulted in bringing Jonathan Hurst to campus. Hurst had just completed a doctorate in robotics from Carnegie Mellon and was drawn to the new program in Corvallis because he saw it as fertile ground for something big. “There was very good leadership in the department, and there was support and freedom to build a research group or a program or anything we wanted to do,” he recalled. “I got the sense that the sky was the limit, as far as Belinda and Kagan were concerned.”
Hurst’s research focuses on the science of legged locomotion, specifically on the passive dynamics of the mechanical system. His group recently designed and built ATRIAS, a bipedal robot for 3D walking and running outdoors. ATRIAS has springs in just the right places and legs of just the right shape to take advantage of passive dynamics and enable high-performance running and walking. Of course, the robot will only function with a good control algorithm, so developing control theory that cooperates with the passive dynamics is another important research focus for Hurst.
Over the five years following Hurst’s arrival, the robotics program expanded at a fast and furious pace. The college renovated a space for Hurst’s laboratory, which he named the Dynamic Robotics Laboratory. By 2013, the research group had grown to encompass eight faculty members, and it is still hiring. For incoming professors, the draw includes the chance to work with other departments within the university, taking advantage of a priceless opportunity to cross disciplines, and ultimately to help countless others.
“I was really excited to come here,” said Ross Hatton, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering who also came to Corvallis following his doctoral studies at Carnegie Mellon. “There were good opportunities for collaborative interdisciplinary research among the faculty.” Hatton is developing fundamental mathematical tools for the study of locomotion. His research on snakes and spiders provides the creative foundation for models that manipulate movement from a single point of control and will support efforts to combine natural and robotic systems. “Biology has many examples of systems that move over rough and complex terrain, and we’re seeking to bring those ideas into robotics,” he said.
Ravi Balasubramanian, an assistant professor who came to Oregon State in 2011, draws inspiration from the human body for designing robotic systems, and his cross-disciplinary work brings together surgeons, bio-materials experts, and statisticians to create implants that can bring natural movement back to people with hand disabilities. His tendon transfer system has no motor or sensors and, once implanted, will be invisible to the patient and enable normal hand function. His design isn’t limited to the hand but could be implanted wherever tendons connect to muscle.
Bill Smart and Cindy Grimm, both associate professors of mechanical engineering, joined the program in 2012 after spending 11 years on the faculty of the department of computer science and engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo. Smart’s work focuses on human-robot interaction, machine learning, and the software needed for robotics. Grimm specializes in the design of robot-human interfaces, computer graphics, and surface modeling. They were both drawn to Oregon State by the broad interdisciplinary nature of the robotics program, which has made it easy for them to collaborate with colleagues throughout the university.
Geoff Hollinger, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, is striving to develop planning, decision-making, and learning techniques to improve robotic systems in the air, on land, and in the ocean. One of his major research thrusts is the development of autonomy capabilities for underwater vehicles, which requires working at the intersection of robotics and oceanography. “The autonomous robotic systems I design have the potential to revolutionize the way we gather scientific data, to improve the efficiency of our agricultural production, and even to save lives by assisting search and rescue teams,” Hollinger said.
The robotics group is working together to recruit new students, create new master’s and Ph.D. programs in robotics, acquire a shared research space, and build an international reputation. Despite the program’s nascent stage, Hurst says that its reputation is growing. “The international robotics community knows the people we’ve hired,” he said. “In addition, students are very excited about the robotics program, and companies are interested in hiring them.”
In late 2013, Oregon State assumed stewardship of the Robot Operating System (ROS) software infrastructure. ROS is an open-source software infrastructure for robotics that is rapidly becoming the de facto standard in academia and industry and is mandated in a number of well-funded government programs. The OSU Open Source Lab is now the primary hosting site for ROS, supporting an estimated 100,000 users worldwide. This is just one more step to cementing Oregon State’s position as a hub for robotics.
The continual contributions coming out of the program represent the nature of the burgeoning robotics field. “I would say that by next year, if not right now, we will have one of the strongest robotics programs in the country, ” said Hurst. “This growth is a result of the a few things. First, robotics is a growing field, with new funding opportunities, new industries, and top faculty candidates making new discoveries in this relatively uncharted territory. Second, OSU is growing, and the College of Engineering is responsible for a large percentage of that growth, which necessitates more hires. Third, the robotics faculty has been successful in creating strong, well-funded research programs. Finally, the department heads and the dean have supported the growth of the robotics group in an effort to help build on our success, stay ahead of technology trends, and make the school as a whole stronger.”
Together with the world-class Intelligent Information Systems group in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Oregon State is on its way to becoming one of the nation’s strongest academic player in the field of robotics.
Ultimately, the success of the program and the field won’t be defined by the standard metrics of academia. You will know the program was successful when your robot hands you a cup of coffee as you settle on the back seat of your driver-less car heading to work, and watch the news where a team of robots helped evacuate a burning factory, resulting in no casualties.