News Release

Robotics Legends Converge at UC San Diego Forum

UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla

San Diego, CA, October 16, 2014 -- After the industrial revolution and the Internet revolution, we are now poised for the robotics revolution. Influential robotics researchers and industry leaders made this prediction in many different ways on Friday at the Contextual Robotics Technologies International Forum. The speakers and more than 250 attendees gathered to reflect on what opportunities and challenges this revolution would bring, and how San Diego fits into this picture.

“Robots in the next couple of decades are going to transform the world the way engines did,” Dean Kamen, founder of DEKA Research and Development and inventor of the Segway, said during the event.

The forum is part of a campus-wide move to focus more on robotics and leverage existing expertise in a variety of related fields and technologies. “UC San Diego needs to take a leading role in this area,” said UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep K. Kholsa at the event. “We want to educate our students for the future of engineering.” And this future most certainly includes robotics.

“As part of its investment in robotics research and education, the Jacobs School of Engineering is committed to hiring five faculty members in the robotics field in the next two hiring cycles,” said Albert P. Pisano, Dean of the Jacobs School. The school has already hired Michael Tolley, a Cornell Ph.D. who most recently worked as a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard. An expert on soft robotics and self-folding robots, he joins the mechanical and aerospace engineering department this fall.

U. Penn professor Vijay Kumar

“We have all the pieces required for the San Diego area to become a worldwide hub in robotics,” Pisano said, pointing to the local defense and wireless industries, as well as manufacturing facilities across the border in Tijuana.

Partnering will be crucial for the creation of the robotics hub, said Qualcomm Institute Director Ramesh Rao. “There will be no robotics ecosystem in San Diego if UC San Diego does not play a strong role,” he said. “A world class ecosystem will emerge here once UC San Diego steps in more fully—in partnership with other key players." Rao, who served as the emcee for the event, is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Jacobs School. He also highlighted UC San Diego’s role in seeding the wireless industry in San Diego.

Matt Grob, Executive Vice President, Qualcomm Technologies and CTO, kicked off a series of keynotes by flying a mini quadcopter over the audience. One big challenge facing the robotics community is battery technology, which, he noted, has only improved by 6 to 7 percent a year, on average.

“I like to think, especially in this field, what would happen if we had 10 times better batteries,” he said. “We’d really have some capability for doing some mobile robotics. I think it will happen. There is huge demand.”

The company is releasing a board equipped with its Snapdragon chip for robotics developers, Grob added.

Robotics today: health care, drones and industrial robots

Tom Bewley, a robotics expert and mechanical engineering
professor at UC San Diego.

Drones, like the mini quadcopter that Qualcomm CTO Grob flew over the audience, are also at the forefront of the robotics revolution. In the consumer space, much of that is due to 3D Robotics, whose CEO, Chris Anderson, also spoke Friday.

Ten years ago, drones like those sold by 3D Robotics were essentially $10 million DARPA projects, he said. Today they can be bought at the mall. “I can’t think of another industry that has consumerized as quickly as this,” Anderson said. In addition to hobbyists, 3D Robotics is currently focusing on applications for agriculture. The company’s drones are helping farmers monitor the health of their crops.
Robotics technologies also are currently embedded in a wide range of medical devices that are helping improve the lives of a large number of patients including people who have lost a limb or the ability to walk.

Kamen, the DEKA Research CEO, showcased two of his companies’ devices that do just that. With DARPA funding, engineers developed a prosthetic arm that is capable of picking up grapes without crushing them and picking up objects as thin as razors without dropping them. The company also developed the iBOT, a wheelchair that functions on the same principle as a Segway, allowing users to go over curbs, climb stairs and even “stand” to see eye to eye with others. “My core business is to create medical products to help people who have a real need,” Kamen said.

Where we are headed: eldercare, military applications and nanomachines

Matt Grob, Executive Vice President, Qualcomm
Technologies and CTO

Industrial robotics and automation are generally viewed as fairly mature. But Rodney Brooks, CTO of Rethink Robotics and an MIT professor emeritus who co-invented the Roomba floor vacuuming robot, sees it differently. Robots in factories are currently imprisoned in cages and run via antiquated programming languages, he said. “We need robots that are easy to work with, easy to integrate in the work space and can work side by side with skilled labor,” Brooks said. One example is Baxter, the robot his company created.

Robots also will be key to help care for the United States’ aging population, Brooks predicted. But to get there, researchers face three major challenges: robots need to be able to get around obstacles in a home; they need to be able to grasp objects; and they need to able to interpret the messy context of everyday life.

Daniela Rus, an MIT professor, is working on some of these challenges. “Robotics is where computer science was before compilers,” which translate more complex programming languages into languages that allow the computer to actually execute commands, Rus said.

The trouble is that most robots are currently expensive and take a long time to develop and build. It took 20 years, for example, for technology to mature and allow her research group to build a duo of robots that can pour and serve coffee. Rus sees opportunities to democratize robotics and make robots more accessible to all through approaches such as self-folding robots and 3D printed robots—a field where she worked with Tolley, the Jacobs School’s latest hire in robotics.

Daniela Rus, an MIT professor and director of CSAIL 

Meanwhile, Vijay Kumar, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is working on improving the way robots perceive and interact with the environment and communicate with each other. His platform of choice: swarms of small quadcopters. “We want to create robots that fly autonomously over complex environments,” he said. “Why swarms?” Kumar asked. “I really think they have immense applications in farming.” Another application for swarms of robots is security and first-response scenarios. Kumar imagines first-responder robot swarms working extremely quickly. “Imagine swarms of robots flying and collecting all this data and when they come out of the building, all that [data] gets sucked into the cloud and reconstructed so that a human first responder can then decide what’s the best course of action,” he said.

DARPA is also currently funding research for a number of robotics applications, many of them military, including a robotic scout. Program manager Gill Pratt said that people who are interesting in looking ahead to where U.S. defense robotics funding will be going should move away from the mindset that it’s about the battlefield. “It’s not about building a robot to take the place of a guy with a gun,” said Pratt. Instead, it’s about automating more support functions and driving costs down. Pratt played video of a DARPA-funded research project in which a robot was tasked with locating and grasping a tool, using the tool to take a tire off of some hardware and then putting the tire back on.

While many robotics researchers build on a big scale, some, like Brad Nelson of ETH Zurich, explore the infinitesimally small. “If you think of nanomachines as a robotics problem, you can talk about how to build these robots and how to control them,” he said. His students have developed a robot at the micron scale that can be attached to a tether and inserted inside the human body via a catheter. The robot can then be steered by using magnetic fields to work inside the human heart or collapsed lungs. It’s set to be used in a clinical setting starting next year. The field has huge potential, Nelson said, but there are challenges that must be solved as well.

Educating tomorrow’s roboticists  

Dean Kamen, founder of DEKA Research and Development
and co-founder of FIRST competitons.

In coming years, the field of robotics – and in particular robotics hubs like the one envisioned for San Diego – will need a trained workforce. Kamen, the Segway inventor, is helping build a pipeline for engineers in the future. He co-founded FIRST, a now famous robotics competition, which brings together kids from 35,000 schools in 81 countries and engages them through exciting robotics challenges.

Kamen’s presentation resonated with many audience members, including Jacobs School computers science undergraduate Antonella Wilby who has gotten a wealth of real-world robotics experiences through Engineers for Exploration projects. “I really loved his talk,” she said. “It’s my first time seeing him in person,” said Wilby, who tweeted a photo of Kamen at the podium.

“We have to change the culture of the country,” Kamen said. “We got to make engineering cool, particularly to women and minorities.

The audience had positive reactions to the event. UC San Diego alumnus Matt Borzage, (BS ’06, bioengineering) drove down from Los Angeles to attend the robotics forum. Borzage is a co-founder and head of business development at SynTouch, a company that makes tactile sensor technologies that give robots the ability to replicate the human sense of touch. “I’m proud to see my alma mater take a lead in the field,” he said. 


The Contextual Robotics Technologies International Forum was hosted by the Jacobs School of Engineering, the Qualcomm Institute and the Department of Cognitive Science.

Additional videos from the event will be posted next week at:

Media Contacts

Daniel Kane
Jacobs School of Engineering

Ioana Patringenaru
Jacobs School of Engineering