Why, Robot

Why, Robot

Taskin Padir, visiting assistant professor in robotics and electrical and computer engineering

I, Robot, a collection of 1940s-vintage short stories (which inspired the 2004 movie) depicts the perils of living and working alongside quirky robots with "positronic" brains. Struggling to hold it all together is "robopsychologist" Susan Calvin, who is so crazy about robots that she actually studies them in college and devotes her career to the imaginary industry, after earning a PhD at Columbia. 
If only she'd gone to WPI.

Author Isaac Asimov did not live to see Susan Calvin's field evolve from science fiction to reality. In 2007—as his futuristic heroine was completing her doctoral work—WPI launched the nation's first undergraduate major in Robotics Engineering (RBE), followed by a master's degree track just this year. (A PhD program is also in the works.)

The new program has taken f light faster than expected. Undergraduate enrollment reached 150 within two years— four times the initial projections—and it's slated to comprise 10 percent of the undergraduate student body by next year. The first RBE diplomas were awarded in May—two years ahead of schedule—to upperclassmen who jumped at the chance to switch to the new major.

Building a new breed of engineers

Put simply, robotics integrates the skills of three traditional disciplines to create a machine that can sense its environment (electrical engineering), make decisions about the input (computer science), and act on the decision (mechanical engineering). The well-rounded roboticist brings a toolbox of solutions to every challenge, employing an integrative, systems engineering approach. And WPI is the ideal place for such a collaborative, hands-on program that brings together theory and practice.

The birth of the university's newest major was driven by a push-pull, says Mike Gennert, program director and computer science department head. Pull from an industry gearing up for applications in manufacturing, defense, medicine, and healthcare; and push by a generation of young people motivated by high school robotics competitions such as FIRST.

Ken Stafford, director of the Robotics Resource Center, calls FIRST the catalyst for the robotics academic program. "Around the middle of the decade, we were seeing more and more students coming to WPI expecting to do robotics," he says. "It had gone beyond a hobbyist thing—they wanted to do academic work in it. They were coming here because of their FIRST experience, only to find that the only academic work they could do was in industrial robotics—which is not as satisfying, or sexy, as mobile robots."

The first step was to offer an introductory robotics course, which Stafford adapted from a popular summer program. All 48 slots in Introduction to Robotics were filled before first year students arrived on campus. Extra sections were added, but there was still a waiting list. At the provost's request, a committee was formed to begin research toward establishing an undergraduate robotics major.

Ken Stafford, director of the Robotics Resource Center

"Initially, I was not enamored with the idea," Stafford admits. "I thought it was too specialized for a bachelor's degree, and that it could turn out to be engineering lite, with no real depth." But he worked with the faculty committee to forge a curriculum with full academic rigor. "Little by little," he says, "I became a believer. Now I believe that robotics is the elite major at WPI—'elite' meaning the most challenging form of engineering."

"Just in time" education

Introduction to Robotics, one of the first courses a WPI robotics engineering major will take, is a microcosm of the university's project-based education, says Stafford. "Our vision is that if you lecture it, it should be used right away. And when we review these courses, we make sure that the word robot is spoken in every lecture, because the content can't be isolated from the context. 

"As a product of a more traditional ME program, I remember how my eyes glazed over while I suffered through the groundwork," Stafford continues. "In our robotics courses, all the cool projects are put into practice, at an appropriate level, in the freshman year. It's a 'just in time' fundamentals approach. We do lecture, but we tell the kids, 'You probably ought to listen up, because you're going to need this in lab tomorrow.'"

FIRST Things First

It's impossible to talk about robotics at WPI without talking about FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), the international robotics competition that engages more than 196,000 budding engineers ages 6–18, who work with 53,000 mentors, including WPI students. The connections run deep: FIRST was founded by Segway inventor Dean Kamen '73, a member of WPI's Robotics Engineering Advisory Board. His creation captured the imaginations of a generation of high school students and brought them to WPI wanting more.

From the days when a handful of students worked out of a corner of a laboratory, Ken Stafford has watched FIRST grow into the most popular student activity group on campus, with more than 200 WPI volunteers signing up to mentor Team 190, the original WPI-sponsored high school team. What began as fun and games for the students has become a national phenomenon in which WPI makes significant intellectual and leadership contributions.

In 2007—the year Team 190 won its first world championship— news of WPI's new major was broken to FIRST enthusiasts with a high-adrenaline video that rocked the Atlanta event. FIRST exposure continues to pull in applicants from all over the country, says Stafford, and when the robots go out to demonstrations at high schools and community groups, a wave of inquiries follows. Admission surveys confirm that many students choose WPI because of its strong connection to FIRST. 

Today, one in ten students comes to WPI with FIRST experience (half of RBE majors are FIRST veterans). WPI, a founding sponsor of FIRST, continues to power the organization with an award-winning JavaTM Technology software platform used by all participants, and an NSF-funded project to help teams help each other through an interactive social networking site called ThinkTank. 

"It may seem like back-of-the-envelope, garage-shop engineering, but it's more than just fun and toys," says Brad Miller, associate director of the Robotics Resource Center. "They're applying what they learned in class to some very complex components, with a very short deadline. There's no other place at WPI where freshmen can have that expanse of responsibility, authority, and commitment. And when they apply for internships and employers hear what they pulled off in six weeks, they're hired right away."

Stafford says, "My colleagues see our students spending Saturdays and Sundays, even missing the Super Bowl to work on their robots, and they ask, 'What are you holding over their heads to make them do that?' I don't think there's anything quite like it on campus."

The challenge is to teach the content of three different degree programs in four years without sacrificing depth. The Unified Robotics curriculum was designed using a "spiral" approach, which wraps the fundamentals of each discipline into an integrated curriculum, rather than a "silo" structure that slices off each discipline vertically. Or, as mechanical engineering department head Grétar Tryggvason explains, "Instead of reading each book all the way through, one by one, and waiting until the final year to put the pieces together, we start by reading Chapter One in all the books. Then we read Chapter Two. We teach the students a little bit about everything. Then we teach them some more about everything, and then even more." All courses are team-taught, merging fundamentals that are common across disciplines and focusing on content essential to the robotics context.

That doesn't mean it's all fun and games. "This is not LEGO," Gennert stresses. "This is real engineering. We have students who come in as tinkerers, who might have done some neat things in high school, but it wasn't formal engineering. They didn't learn to solve the mathematical equations involved. Now they need to use their background to learn serious engineering and design." 

Help Wanted: Robot Visionaries

Although 2007 was a dismal year for the robotics industry in Isaac Asimov's fictional timeline, reality tells a different story. The year began with the less fanciful Bill Gates heralding the dawn of the robot age on the cover of Scientific American. ("A Robot in Every Home," January 2007). Gates made an analogy to the 1970s, the era of industrial-sized mainframes and kooky electronics hobbyists, when the idea of the average person owning a computer—and relying on it to get through the day—seemed preposterous. Today, with the cost of robot components falling and the sophistication of technology rising, we are about to see a transformation that's the magnitude of electricity—or the Internet.

"The world is going to look very different in a few decades," Tryggvason says confidently. "You're already starting to see that. It's not always going to look like the humanoid robots in the movies. It could be as simple as an automatic door that senses when you actually intend to go through and doesn't open every time someone passes by. We already have luxury cars that park themselves. We may not think of them as robots, because there's no droid sitting in the driver's seat. We'll also see more agile, versatile robots on the assembly line, in the military, and in medical operations."

WPI faculty and students are already leading the way in this research. Greg Fisher, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, specializes in technologies for medical robotics and robot-assisted surgery. Computer science professor Charles Rich explores human-robot interaction, with the help of Melvin, one of the few existing robots with human features and an expressive face. Aaron Holroyd '09, a member of the inaugural RBE graduating class, was part of a Major Qualifying Project (MQP) group that improved Melvin's hand-eye coordination. With software designed by the project team, Melvin can see, name, and point to the correct object in response to the actions of a human partner. Holroyd, who is interning at iRobot this summer, is continuing in WPI's computer science program. "My goal is to study the interactions between tutor and student, and to develop robotic tutoring systems," he says. "My degree will enable me to be part of a robotics research company, or to do funded research at a university."

This year's winner of the Provost's MQP Award for Robotics Engineering was a "sand-swimming snake" designed by Brian Benson '09, a mechanical engineering major with a robotics concentration, and Neal Humphrey '09, another of the first RBE graduates. The snake, which travels beneath the surface of a granular media, could have military or surveillance applications. The two students were involved with all aspects of the project: from the mechanical design and circuitry of the snake's networked segments, to analyzing the physics of a real snake's locomotion and writing software to replicate it. Humphrey spent last summer as a robotics engineering co-op/ intern at Boston Engineering, and now holds the well-deserved title of multidiscipline systems engineer at MITRE.

In fact, all of WPI's RBE students are graduating into a billion-dollar robotics economy right here in Massachusetts, with 150 companies, institutions, and research labs employing more than 1,500 people. CNET recently ranked WPI among the top 10 colleges for the robotically-inclined, noting the proximity to metro Boston, a "geographic hot spot" for academia and industry. To maximize their impact in this new sector, all RBE majors are required to take a course in entrepreneurship.

"The world needs engineers who not only are problem solvers, but are looking ahead to see what products are feasible, attractive, environmentally conscious, and ethically significant," says Stafford. "It requires not just people who can figure out stresses and strains, but also people who are visionaries."

If the enrollment trends continue, RBE will soon be one of the most popular majors on campus. What began as a joint effort among three departments will eventually demand a department—and a building—of its own.

Regardless of their majors, all students will benefit from studying robotics, says Fred Looft, electrical and computer engineering department head. "Students will likely need some background in the areas of autonomous operations, sensing, and actuation, which is the core of robotics," he says. "They should have some grasp of the advantages and disadvantages of robotic systems and autonomous operations. And they're going to need to understand the systems-level design concepts involved, because you don't design just a robot or an autonomous vehicle, you have to design the full system and consider other factors, such as the operational environment."

As for those students who do pursue WPI's undergraduate or graduate robotics program, the world awaits. "These are some of the best and brightest and most creative students on campus. They haven't taken the easy path, but they have a real passion for what they do," Gennert says. "There's a world of untapped applications out there. What they'll be, I don't know exactly, but I'll tell you this—our students will figure it out."

Robotics Innovation Competition and Conference (RICC):  Nov. 7-8, 2009.  Register at ricc.wpi.edu.

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Last modified: October 12, 2009 10:57:57