The field of robotics sits upon a three-legged stool.
“There is a leg that is about mechanisms—designing things that exert forces on the environment. There is a leg that is about sensing—robots need to understand and respond appropriately to the environment, otherwise it’s just a can opener,” says C. J. Taylor, a professor of computer and information science. “And the third leg is about decision-making and control— this encompasses topics such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, control theory.”
It’s logical, then, that the study of robotics is divided into three disciplines: mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and computer science. This structure is similar at peer institutions, but only at the University of Pennsylvania do the three work together under one roof: the GRASP Lab.
“I’m a mechanical engineer, next to me is an electrical engineer, across the hall is a computer scientist,” says Vijay Kumar, the UPS Foundation Professor with appointments in the Departments of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, Computer and Information Science, and Electrical and Systems Engineering. “You will not find that at 99 percent of the places you go to. This is very unusual.”
Penn offers a master’s degree in robotics, but unlike other institutions, the University does not offer a specialized Ph.D. program. It’s a strategic move—with Ph.D. students focused on one of the three disciplines sharing a space, collaboration among specialized experts becomes vital.
“[Robotics] has always been a preeminent interdisciplinary initiative at this school,” says Eduardo Glandt, who has served as the dean of SEAS since late 1999 and has been at Penn since 1975, when he arrived to earn his master’s degree in chemical engineering. “We all claim to be interdisciplinary, but what makes it easier at Penn to be interdisciplinary is geography. The fact that we are in a compact place, you bump into each other, and that fosters reactions.”
In a field that thrives through both innovative and analytical approaches, the caliber and characteristics of its students matter.
“I think it really helps, though it’s not required, [for students] to have a sense of being able to still remain creative,” says Jonathan Fiene, senior lecturer and director of Laboratory Programs in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics. He says the reason he pursued a Ph.D. was so he would have the ability to teach. “It’s a culmination of enthusiasm, some creativity, and yeah, the willingness to fail a lot because that’s what happens with this. [Robots] never work the first time out of the gate. That’s one of the rules about robotics.”
Classes that focus on robotics include everything from mechanical design and mechanical engineering to machine design and manufacturing. Fiene teaches a course called “Design of Mechatronic Systems”—“mechatronic” is a mash-up of “mechanical” and “electronics”—in which students examine the fusion of the robotics triad without any prerequisite experience.
“This is a class where we really try to get people who often know one of these disciplines—they know mechanical design or they’re good with circuits or they’re really good with programming,” Fiene says. “It’s why they take the class — nobody has all three of those, and they’ve had very little experience putting them all together. We often don’t have the opportunity to bring all that together, and this class is designed specifically to do just that.”
Throughout the semester, members of the class design pint-size robotic hockey teams that are capable of skating on wheels, shooting with pistons, and seeing the puck, the goals, and each other using a variety of sensors. For the course’s final project, the teams face off in The Robockey Cup.
The competition takes place on a 4-foot-by-8-foot sheet of slick plastic beneath a constellation of infrared “stars” mounted high above the rink, allowing the robots to know where they are during the game. Fiene says he chose the competition model because it generates enthusiasm and excitement among his students, and is a comprehensive test of their ability to synthesize the three core disciplines.
“It’s all about the team,” says Nicholas McGill, a fifth-year Mechanical and Electrical Engineering student pursuing a master’s in robotics. “It’s a really aggressive schedule—you have four weeks to develop three robots, debug them, laser-cut all the materials. You couldn’t do it alone. You had to have three people working in unison to make it happen.”
As McGill nears graduation in May, he’s more likely to worry about juggling job offers than bolstering his resume. It’s already dazzling with accomplishments, ranging from working with industry-leading 3D printing company MakerBot Industries to co-developing a customized intubating airway medical device.
Perhaps most notably, McGill is the co-creator of the Titan Arm, a powered upper-body exoskeleton for use in physical therapy and occupational lifting. Working with Engineering undergraduates Elizabeth Beattie, Nick Parrotta, and Niko Vladimirov for their senior design project, McGill was able to create a bionic arm that augments its user’s strength by up to 40 lbs. Titan Arm has the potential to be an affordable method for physical therapy patients to regain strength and mobility, as well as a preventative measure for workers who are at risk for repetitive stress injuries.
Weighing only 20 lbs. and constructed for less than $2,000, Titan Arm’s power comes from a battery-powered motor mounted on a SCUBA backplate that the user wears with straps repurposed from a hiking backpack. After strapping his or her right arm into a support, a cable system transfers the motor’s motion to the support’s elbow joint.
The project earned the team more than just a passing grade—they won the 2013 James Dyson Award, a prestigious international competition that aims to encourage engineering students to develop products that address a social ill. Titan Arm is the first product from the United States to win the award.
McGill credits much of his success to the supportive environment at Penn.
“It all comes from relationships,” McGill says. “Having relationships through faculty or friends, it really changes the way you experience everything. I’ve always thought of Penn Engineering as more than just academics. You stick with your friends throughout the labs and the late nights, and that really enhances the education. Some of my best moments are hanging out at 2 a.m. in the Towne Building. That’s when the best bonding happens, and it’s only fueled my fire for being interested in engineering.”
His spark for engineering, McGill could say, runs in the family. He was inspired to come to Penn by his older brothers—Will and Steve McGill.
Steve McGill, a Ph.D. candidate in Electrical and Systems Engineering, can boast his own series of accomplishments. He’s served as an integral force behind Penn’s efforts in the DARPA Robotics Challenge, a competition designed to push the envelope in terms of robots that could autonomously serve in emergency and disaster scenarios, as well as RoboCup, an international robotics challenge in which participants develop and program robots to play soccer. Listing names of faculty members who have supported him since his early days at Penn as an undergraduate, he quits, saying there are “too many to count.”
“There’s no parallel to Penn,” Steve McGill says. “You can go to some other schools, and their labs are miles apart, and in some cases, the students don’t know each other. At Penn, you go to the water cooler and talk to [Professor of Computer and Information Science] Jean Gallier about his course, and then you walk in to Dan [Koditschek] Kod’s office and he has a new robot he’s playing with, and Vijay’s always flying around. You can always chat with these people—all the professors are right there.”
Fiene says aside from the leading-edge technology and premier community of scientists, that support structure is what allows people within the GRASP Lab to do amazing things.
“[Penn] has committed to making sure that we can do, within reason, everything possible to give the best educational experience for these students, and to me, that means a lot,” Fiene says.
“Students who come here know GRASP is a brand,” says Eduardo Glandt. “But they also know that they come to work with a community. We offer students two things: We offer them great faculty, and we offer them the community of excellent students. These become your best friends for life and your spouses and significant others, but also your partners in startups and resources forever.”
ROBOTICS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA was produced and developed by the following puny humans from the Office of University Communications:
* with SPECIAL THANKS to the staff and faculty of the GRASP Lab.