History History


May 1, 2014

The year 1961 saw robotics leave science fiction and enter the real world. 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, says General Motors installed its first robot to handle steel ingots that year, which gave birth to industrial robotics. These were awkward machines that had to be bolted down to the shop floor.

“Things had to be brought to the robot, the robot would do X, Y, or Z task, and then the applications would have to be taken away,” Kumar says.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that engineers began to make robots mobile—adding legs or wheels—allowing them to travel to a task for the first time.

“Robots could go to applications, and the whole world is your laboratory potentially,” Kumar says. “That not only opened up opportunities, but it also raised the ante because now you had to incorporate in the robot the ability to reason about its surroundings and infer something about where it was in the environment.”

That innovation came just a few years after the founding of the GRASP Lab, established in 1979 by Ruzena Bajcsy, former chair and professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Pennsylvania.

Ruzena Bajcsy and GRASP Lab members, circa 1984

Ruzena Bajcsy (center), former chair and professor of computer science and engineering, with other members of the GRASP Lab, circa 1984. Bajcsy founded the GRASP Lab in 1979.

“Ruzena Bajcsy was a pioneer,” says Dan Lee, director of the GRASP Lab and a professor with appointments in the departments of Electrical and Systems Engineering, Computer and Information Science, and Bioengineering. “Being a woman in the computer science and engineering field was unheard of back in the ’70s. She was putting together computer systems that could see, and could be controlled to look around in different places. That’s where it started. This is before we were even thinking in terms of ‘robotics’—this was a bunch of computer scientists who were thinking about different ways to control cameras, and what to do with the information that you get from them.”

“[Bajcsy is] still active in the field, and she has been a visionary,” adds Dan Koditschek, the Alfred Fitler Moore Professor of Electrical & Systems Engineering. “She created and mentored a young group of faculty who emerged with her who were some of the most important, most exciting people in the field. The place got off to a really strong start at the very foundation of robotics.”

Related Media

Ruzena Bajcsy, 2009 Franklin Award Winner
Ruzena Bajcsy, 2009 Franklin Award Winner
Ruzena Bajcsy, former chair and professor of computer science and engineering at Penn and founder of the GRASP Lab, was awarded the 2009 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Computer and Cognitive Science for her contributions to robotics and computer vision. This video, produced in 2009, describes her long and distinguished career, first in her native country of Slovakia and then in the United States.

Initially, robotics was a discipline rooted in computer science. In the ’80s, digital cameras were available, but had low resolutions and were too expensive for academics to use in research. The computers available to control them were equally limited; the smartphones of 2014 have faster computational speeds and better memory densities than those early computers that were the size of filing cabinets.

As robotics entered the '90s, sensor technology was dramatically impacted by the introduction of microelectromechanical systems, when the same technology used to miniaturize electronic circuitry was used on silicon chips to develop smaller mechanical sensors.

There were a number of mechanical advances, as well, enabling roboticists in the 2000s to think beyond the traditional two-dimensional nature of robots, finding ways to send them above ground and into water.

GRASP Lab projects in the 1990s

When this video was made in the 1990s, the core mission of the GRASP Lab was to “apply solid physical and mathematical principles toward the solution of practical engineering problems”—much as it still is today. This video highlights some projects during the decade, including 3D reconstruction of environments and objects for use in simulations and rapid prototyping, new ways of giving robotic systems sensory inputs and ways of cooperating, airborne and underwater locomotion systems, and early wearable computers for use in assistive devices.

The field continued to expand to include experts from the disciplines of both electrical and mechanical engineering.

One of those roboticists was Kumar, who served as director of the Lab from 1998 to 2004.

The Penn SmartChair

This video from 2001 highlights the GRASP Lab project to develop a smart wheelchair. The SmartChair device projects a virtual interface in front of the user that pulls information about the user’s surroundings from an overhead omnidirectional camera. A user can point out a desired destination using this interface, and built-in control algorithms will drive the chair to it, relying on cameras and laser range-finders to avoid collisions.

“We [at the GRASP Lab] were doing interdisciplinary research long before anyone knew what that meant,” says Kumar, who has been at Penn for 25 years. “When it [began], it started in computer science. I was the first mechanical engineering person to come in, and when I was director, by the end, we had roughly one-third mechanical engineers, one-third computer scientists, and one-third electrical engineers. To me, that mix was very important.”

Today, that mix is the backbone of robotics at Penn.

“We have great faculty from many different departments— ESE [Electrical and Systems Engineering], CIS [Computer and Information Science], MEAM [Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics], and even beyond Engineering, like the Medical School—that are put all together in one place,” says Lee, who has been at Penn since 2001. He’s served as director of the GRASP Lab for a little more than a year. “Then we recruit students from the entire spectrum—undergrad, masters, Ph.D.s, postdocs. That’s because robotics is an exciting field to be in—there’s opportunity to form connections to industry, government, alumni, youth, the whole gamut.”

But it provides more than just opportunities—the interdisciplinary approach to robotics spearheaded by the GRASP Lab forges real innovations, with real applications.

“The thing that makes the GRASP Lab really wonderful is the culture of collaboration,” says Mark Yim, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics. “It’s co-located in the sense that we have this one big space where all of our, or most of our, Ph.D. students reside. I think there are very few places that have enough of a critical mass, in terms of professors that are all doing robotics on the different areas at the same time.”

Ruzena Bajcsy at commencement, 2012
Ruzena Bajcsy at commencement, 2012

In 2012, Penn conferred an honorary Doctor of Sciences upon Ruzena Bajcsy, professor emeritus of computer science and engineering, for her pioneering work in machine perception, robotics, and artificial intelligence.

About this project


ROBOTICS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA was produced and developed by the following puny humans from the Office of University Communications:

  • MATT CALLAHAN, web developer
  • HEATHER A. DAVIS, manager, internal communications
  • REBECCA ELIAS ABBOUD, video producer
  • GREG JOHNSON, editor
  • EVAN LERNER, science writer
  • STEVEN MINICOLA, director of web and visual strategy
  • SCOTT SPITZER, photographer
  • MARIA ZANKEY, staff writer

* with SPECIAL THANKS to the staff and faculty of the GRASP Lab.