IRI Intros: 5 Questions with Henrik Christensen

Jan 13, 2013 | Atlanta, GA

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  • Henrik Christensen

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Kirk Englehardt

Director, Research Communications

You’ve probably heard that Georgia Tech has a number of Interdisciplinary Research Institutes (IRIs) – but do you know much about them?

This article is one in a series of Q&As to introduce the Tech community to the 10 IRIs and their leaders. In this installment, Executive Director of the Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines (IRIM) Henrik Christensen answers questions about IRIM and also talks about its efforts to support Georgia Tech faculty and students. 

 

Q: What is the Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines (IRIM), and what are its core research areas?

A: The Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines is a new IRI that integrates robotics research, education and outreach, and industry engagement across the College of Engineering, the College of Computing, the College of Sciences, and the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI). Our work often involves labs and individual researchers in other Georgia Tech colleges and centers, as well.

We conduct research in mechanisms, control, perception, artificial intelligence (AI), and human–robot interaction (HRI) with a particular emphasis on human-centered robotics. The question, “How can we build robots that empower people in their daily lives, whether for service in the workplace or in the home, or for enjoyment in a leisure setting?” is central to our work.

Using robots makes it possible to compete with low-wage manual labor in other countries. It also creates new positions that replace the dirty, dull, and dangerous jobs in U.S. factories. Additionally, robotics technologies have made it possible to improve the quality of life in an aging society by providing services that allow people to remain autonomous as they lose various functions such as mobility and memory. Finally, our research leads to new types of autonomous systems to assist first responders and soldiers during interventions by increasing the distance between responders and the immediate danger, including fires, earthquakes, and explosives.

IRIM has three objectives: 1) to be the world leader in human-centered robotics, 2) to educate the best people to serve in academia and industry for next-generation robotic systems, and 3) to create new opportunities in robotics for industry and society at large, in both Georgia and beyond.

Q: A lot seems to be going on in robotics these days. Can you summarize the big trends and Georgia Tech’s role with regard to those trends?

A: Robotics has seen tremendous growth in the past few years. Today, robots are used to re-shore jobs to the U.S. in industries such as automotive, aerospace, and electronics manufacturing. We have also seen the development of major new services for the home – from robot vacuum cleaners to autonomous transportation and personal assistance devices. And, of course, we have seen numerous robots used in Iraq and Afghanistan to make life a little safer for our soldiers.

Overall, we are seeing major growth in manufacturing, e-commerce, health care, and service industries.

The U.S. recently initiated a number of big programs in robotics, such as the National Robotics Initiative (NRI), which is sponsored jointly by the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and NASA. The NRI was launched on the basis of the Roadmap for U.S. Robotics, a report initially published in 2009 and revised in 2013. Georgia Tech served as the coordinator of the development of both editions of this report. To support the NRI, a national network, the Robotics Virtual Organization was founded and is managed by Tech. Consequently, Tech is seen, in many respects, as the leader for the push for new robotics initiatives in the U.S. across research, education, and the translation of results.

Q: How does IRIM support research?

A: IRIM supports the research of more than 60 faculty members and 140 graduate students across various colleges and GTRI in a number of ways.

First, we proactively identify major new funding areas and launch seed projects that allow Georgia Tech to be competitive when calls for proposals are issued. There are remarkably few opportunities for faculty to conduct exploratory research without funding constraints, so we try to identify these new opportunities early and build up results to ensure we can successfully compete for funds.

Additionally, we are developing an infrastructure that matches researchers with similar interests so, together, they have a more competitive edge when applying for major funding awards. Although our researchers are very good at pursuing grants, it is challenging, as a single applicant, to generate adequate support to build a successful proposal for major funding awards such as NSF’s Engineering Research Centers (ERCs) or Science and Technology Centers (STCs) grants. For example, it is difficult for one faculty member to build a complete manufacturing facility for new robotics research in the automotive industry. However, IRIM can provide a shared infrastructure that allows multiple researchers to pursue a larger research effort in a shared space.

IRIM is also committed to providing support to faculty pursuing major research opportunities through all phases of the process, from early research efforts and proposal writing to grant management and evaluation of broader impact and outreach. We would rather see our robotics faculty winning a smaller number of major grants rather than a larger number of smaller grants because comparatively, the smaller grants have too much overhead.

Additionally, IRIM facilitates opportunities for engagement in interdisciplinary activities through events such as weekly seminars and topical workshops throughout the fall and spring semesters.

Finally, our One Georgia Tech approach allows external stakeholders, especially our industry partners, the chance to work with IRIM to identify the individual or lab on campus that best matches their research needs.

Q: How is IRIM furthering Georgia Tech’s academic mission?

A:  Over the past few years, we have built a strong Ph.D. program in robotics in which we currently have close to 50 graduate students enrolled. These students are required to have an interdisciplinary focus and must choose coursework that involves three of five core robotics areas: mechanics, controls, perception, HRI, and AI and autonomy. Our interdisciplinary approach has proven to be very popular with students, as well as with employers.

Additionally, IRIM is working on the development of a professional master’s program in robotics. Georgia has a strong industry base related to robotics, and many of these companies would welcome the opportunity to have a continuing education program available locally for their employees. A professional master’s program would not only allow us to attract more students to Georgia Tech, it would also build new links to industrial companies from across the state.

IRIM also actively engages with undergraduate students enrolled in participating units (Interactive Computing, Electrical & Computer Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, and Aerospace Engineering) through coursework and undergraduate research opportunities. This summer, we are launching an NSF-sponsored Summer Undergraduate Research in Engineering (SURE) Program for students to spend summer on campus to conduct research with robotics faculty and graduate students. We see this program as a strong recruiting mechanism to attract the best students to Georgia Tech for graduate studies.

Q: How does IRIM support industry engagement and community outreach?

A:  IRIM has a proven track record of cultivating successful industry partnerships, including those with KUKA, Boeing, General Motors, BMW, PSA Peugeot Citroën, Google, Microsoft, iRobot, and Lockheed Martin.

Through a strong collaboration across academic units and GTRI, IRIM offers industry partners access to a broad research portfolio, as well as an abundance of beneficial services that span from basic research opportunities to full-product development solutions. Too often, innovations are lost in the abyss between basic research and applications. IRIM has the faculty, processes, and experience to ensure these innovative projects can be successful. Few other academic or research institutions in the U.S. have a comparable scope of expertise and options available to industry.

For broader community outreach, IRIM works closely with organizations across Georgia and the nation, such as high schools, to provide education on the impact of robotics with regard to everyday living. We do this through initiatives such as the FIRST Robotics Competition. The undergraduate robotics club, RoboJackets, with support from IRIM, organizes the annual kickoff for this competition. In 2013, more than 1,000 high school students attended the event at Ferst Center for the Arts, and quite a few Georgia Tech students and faculty members are mentors for the FIRST team.

Additionally, in an effort to stimulate general interest in STEM subjects, as well as a specific interest in robotics, IRIM organizes regular school visits across Georgia during the year. Since the launch of National Robotics Week in 2010, IRIM has participated annually by sponsoring an open house at Tech and conducting lab tours and demonstrations for middle and high school students. More than 400 students participated in Tech's 2013 event held on April 11, with one group traveling from Tennessee to attend. Tours offered participants a chance to learn more about 46 different research projects in 16 different robotics labs on campus. We anticipate the 2014 event will be even bigger and better than last year!

 

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