The varied research interests of Ross Hatton, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, converge at the intersection of robotics, mechanics, and biology. His work includes the development of motion models for robotic snakes and fundamental mathematical models for the study of locomotion. Hatton looks to the natural world to find mathematical principles of animal motion and behavior, then translates them into engineered systems. “If we build a robotic leg, for example, rather than trying to build one that mimics an animal or human leg, we look for some underlying physical principle that the leg projects and build a robot inspired by that truth,” said Hatton, who directs the Laboratory for Robotics and Applied Mechanics. “We don’t want a robotic leg that looks and moves exactly like an animal or a person, but one that is bio-inspired and can accomplish the same interesting and complex things.”

Hatton joined Oregon State in 2012. He earned his B.S. in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2005, followed by an M.S. in mechanical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University in 2007. He received his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Carnegie Mellon in 2011. Hatton was recently selected to receive a prestigious NSF CAREER Award for 2017.

One goal of his work is to design and build robots that can perform complex, difficult, and potentially hazardous tasks. “These are interesting jobs that can, for now, be done only by a person, but they can be physically harmful,” he said. “Can we design systems that make it possible for people to complete these tasks more safely? That’s what we’re working toward.”

Hatton’s intent is to design robots that can learn such physically and mentally demanding tasks in an unstructured manufacturing environment. “To do this,” he explained, “we need to get inside the head of the person working the grinder and use that information to teach the robot ‘this is what I would do if I was to hold the grinder for hours.’” Workers, he emphasized, would remain involved but in a way that doesn’t jeopardize their health. Funding for the project comes from the manufacturer and from State of Oregon matching funds.

Another project, funded by the NSF and done in conjunction with biologists at Berkeley, seeks to understand how spider webs allow their inhabitants to find food and learn about the world around them. Using a giant model of a spider web, Hatton’s team is applying its knowledge of engineered structures and vibrations to understand what’s happening inside the web. “Hundreds of vibrations pass through the web, which the spider feels through its feet,” he said. “We want to know how that happens.” Possible practical applications include determining how best to arrange motion sensors in buildings to monitor foot traffic and establish efficient emergency evacuation routes.

Hatton also plans to incorporate the mechanics of spider and snake locomotion into robotics. Robot spiders and snakes, equipped with cameras, could be sent into collapsed buildings or other disaster sites, slithering or climbing over rubble piles to reach areas that humans can’t and transmit images back to rescuers. The robots might even be able to carry rescue tethers for hauling victims to safety.

Finding definitive answers as to why things work the way they do is a constant motivator in Hatton’s research. He sometimes postulates theoretical underpinnings to applied work that colleagues are doing. “My education is in mechanical engineering, but I often function as more of an applied mathematician,” he said. “When given a set of observations from another researcher, I might come in to look for a structure that explains their underlying principles. That’s very satisfying.” He also delves into advanced mathematics for solutions to practical engineering problems in robotics and other engineering disciplines. “I’m trying to bring fire back down from the gods and apply it to something that, historically, has been a difficult engineering problem,” he said.

His teaching, too, shades toward the mathematical side of engineering, both for undergraduate and graduate students, and he emphasizes the importance of considering problems in different ways. “I want students to see the process by which I approach a problem,” Hatton said, “and I want them to be able to adjust their thinking if the parameters of a problem shift.” Most gratifying of all is seeing his students hit ‘Aha!’ moments after they’ve solved a very difficult problem and realize they have the tools to move on to even more challenging and interesting work.

Throughout his life, Hatton has been drawn to discovering how the world works. When faced with the decision to study computer science or engineering, he chose engineering figuring he could apply his programming skills to new areas of interest. “That’s consistent with decisions I’ve made: strengthen skills in one area and go into new territory where I can use the skills I’ve already built up behind me, then apply them in the new and different work.”

— Steve Frandzel

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