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Dynamic Systems and Controls Chair Awarded to Robert Skelton

October 23, 2006 -- Robert E. Skelton, a Distinguished Professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at UC San Diego’s Jacobs School of Engineering and a leading controls theorist, has been named the Daniel L. Alspach Professor of Dynamic Systems and Controls.

 Robert Skelton_chair
Robert Skelton, the Daniel L. Alspach Professor of Dynamic Systems and Controls, UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering.
Skelton has been involved with the country’s first space station, Skylab, as well as the Hubble Space Telescope and a wide variety of down-to-Earth projects involving everything from robots to red blood cells. In recognition of a wide range of accomplishments, Skelton has been awarded the endowed chair with a gift from Daniel L. Alspach, a UCSD alumnus, former visiting professor at the Jacobs School and co-founder of Orincon, a San Diego-based systems integration and information technology company. Alspach’s gift contributes to the $1 billion fundraising goal of The Campaign for UCSD: Imagine What’s Next.

Skelton most recently has pioneered the mathematical description of tensegrity structures, a term derived from tension and integrity that describes combinations of strings and rods of various materials, sizes, and groupings assembled to create deformable bridges, buildings, shape-controllable airplane wings, radio antennas, and other alternatives to current structural technologies.

Artists such as Buckminster Fuller and others created sculptures with stainless steel rods and tension wires, but most engineers have regarded tensegrity sculptures in museums as curiosities. “Tensegrity, as a concept, has been around for more than 50 years, but until now we have lacked the mathematics needed to make it an engineering tool,” said Skelton. “There are lots of ways to put sticks and strings together that give you nothing but a useless pile. However, our new computational tools enable us to design an airplane wing structure that can extend and retract like a bird’s wing.”

Skelton has also championed the approach of making controls an integral part of the initial design phase of structures and engineering applications rather than tacking controls on at the end.

“There is a fundamental flaw in the whole concept of controls theory in the way it is used after the fact, and Bob Skelton has the clearest, most practical vision of how to solve it—include controls from the start,” said Alspach.

Skelton is a recipient of the Norman Medal from the American Society of Civil Engineers, a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and a life member of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, a non-profit foundation in Germany established to promote cooperation in international research.

Skelton joined UCSD in 1996, and was responsible for hiring a cadre of six faculty members to the university’s Dynamic Systems and Control group. Prior to his appointment at UCSD, he served for 20 years as a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Purdue University. Skelton began his career at the Marshall Space Flight Center, working first with Lockheed Missiles and Space Company and then Sperry Rand for 12 years.

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