Penn Engineering prof designs cars of the future

Little Ben

Daniel Lee, an associate professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and "Little Ben," a self-driving Toyota Prius created by Lee and colleagues.

Some high-end cars already help drivers parallel park, but it might not be too long before enhanced cars—even ones that drive themselves—are available to the masses. Right now, researchers like Daniel Lee of the School of Engineering and Applied Science are breaking new ground in designing autonomous robots and vehicles.

Since joining Penn in 2001, Lee, an associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering and the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Lab, has focused on designing intelligent machines. Drawing on his background in physics and his interest in neuroscience, his designs are based in part on knowledge about how humans and animals think and move.

In 2007, a self-driving Toyota Prius created by Lee and colleagues, dubbed “Little Ben,” successfully navigated city traffic and completed challenges that would have earned the robotic “driver” a California driver’s license. And in 2010, a cadre of nine robots designed by Lee and his students garnered second place in an Australian competition that mimicked a military surveillance and reconnaissance mission.

On the lighter side, Lee leads the UPennalizers, a team of undergraduate and graduate students who craft soccer-playing robots that can communicate with one another and play as a team. Last year, the team took first place in an international “Robocup” competition held in Istanbul.

“The thrill of the competition” may draw students in, says Lee, but they learn a lot about robotics along the way.

Recently, Lee served as the head Penn faculty member on a proposal to fund a $3.5 million center to conduct research and implement technologies related to improving the safety and efficiency of transportation. The newly launched University Transportation Center is a partnership between Penn Engineering and Carnegie Mellon University’s (CMU) College of Engineering.

“The idea behind the center is to bring together computer science, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering to do research that will impact how people commute, drive, and move around this country,” says Lee.

Headquartered at CMU’s campus in Pittsburgh, Lee says the transportation center “can make Pennsylvania a test bed for improving transportation.”

He even envisions a Pittsburgh-to-Philadelphia road trip. “As a demonstration of the center, we may have a research vehicle complete a trip across Pennsylvania,” he says.

Originally published on February 23, 2012