CoC announces nation’s second robotics Ph.D program

In cooperation between the College of Engineering and the College of Computing (CoC), Tech has announced a new Ph.D. program that is focusing exclusively on the field of robotics. Created by Tech’s Center for Robotics and Intelligent Machines, the doctoral degree is intended to become a place for those who will want to delve solely into the realm of robotics.

The multidisciplinary program will draw on the curricula from the fields of Computer Science, Computer Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Aerospace Engineering and Biomedical Engineering. With students being able to work with all of these fields in their study of robotics, the hope is that they will develop a broad, multidisciplinary knowledge base. This base will make them prepared to tackle the challenges that the highly interwoven field of robotics, which requires the expertise from a diverse list of subjects like Computer Science and Mechanical Engineering, will develop in the future.

“We are very excited about getting this program going, because… there is the possibility to give Tech a unique profile. Personal robotics… is something that will be very important to people in the future,” said Henrik Christensen, KUKA Chair of Robotics for the CoC.

The program will begin next fall, and the admissions process is currently open. It is expected that about 10 current students will move into the new doctorate program. The goal is to bring in about 15 students every year and to eventually build the program up to a size of around 60 to 80 students.

The program will have five different areas of focus, with students picking three of the areas to become their core competence. The five areas are mechanism, control, perception, artificial intelligence and autonomy. As an example, if a student is interested in understanding how a robot understands and moves through its environment, then they could study artificial intelligence, perception and autonomy.

“We are looking for students that are really interested in doing robotics…Some come in and say ‘I really want to build these awesome robots. This is what I really want to do.’ [Those] are the people we are looking for,” Christensen said.

In the current robotics industry, the people who are building robots for companies like General Motors or Lockheed Martin have been trained in the traditional engineering subjects and then moved into the field of robotics, according to Christensen. There is a lot of interest in getting people who are educated in the variety of disciplines that encompass robotics.

“I think it will be something that we will see. Where we go away from having people that are deep in a particular area… to having people that have a broad profile so they understand overall context but still have deep knowledge. I hope this is an evolution that we see at Tech. That we will [address] more interdisciplinary topics,” Christensen said.

There has only been one other Ph.D. degree in robotics, and it is located at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, Pa.. Christensen sees Tech’s program as complementary CMU’s program. CMU works on robots that are deployed in the field. For example, robots that are used by the military or by those conducting a search and rescue mission. Tech’s focus is on robots that will assist or empower people.

“What can we do to build robots to help people in their daily lives? [It] could be in an industrial setting where robots do heavy lifting…. It could be in health care, where there is a significant aging of society…. It would be really nice if we could help people with [basic functions], so [they] don’t have to go to a managed care facility and [instead] stay in [their] home,” Christensen said.

By complementing the work at CMU, Christensen believes that the United States on the whole will be come more competitive with the work being done in Europe and in Asia. He sees that there are growth opportunities for robotics in the future, and the Ph.D. degree is a really good opportunity for Tech to expand into the growing field.