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Cross-disciplinary robotics Ph.D. offered

Robert Nesmith
Communications
& Marketing

The five core Robotics Ph.D. disciplinesWith the University System of Georgia Board of Regents’ approval, Tech soon will offer the nation’s second doctoral degree in robotics. In November, the board approved the new degree, which will present students with a cross-disciplinary look into robotics research.

Robotics and Intelligent Machines Center Director Henrik Christensen says the course—which should be ready by summer semester 2008—will span five core principles: mechanisms, controls, perception, autonomy and artificial intelligence. These are represented by the schools of Mechanical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, Aerospace Engineering and the College of Computing, respectively.

“If you want to do it right, you need the many disciplines,” Christensen said. “Take a Roomba [vacuum cleaner], for example. We need a good mechanical design, a good electrical system, autonomy, which would incorporate aerospace [engineering], and we would need to take into account all the human factors. Then we would program it.” To incorporate even more disciplines, he points out that design would play a critical role, as would the psychology concerning human-robot interaction.

Three new courses have been crafted specifically for the program, including an interdisciplinary introductory course providing an overview of the entire field, and two multidisciplinary research courses.

“The intro will help students have a big picture of the program,” he said, and will be administered by three different professors from three separate fields. Core research courses will be across two disciplines, chosen from the initial five. This will consist of two smaller projects in robotics across the two different schools.

“We expect 15 students a year in the program,” Christensen said. Assuming a typical four-year program, after the program is up and running roughly 60 students will be enrolled. The degree is comprised of 27 hours for a major and nine hours for a minor. One core course and one elective from each discipline will make up the bulk of the academic workload. The application process should be very competitive, as an estimated 80 to 90 students will apply each year. Some students already have expressed interest in transferring over from existing degree programs.

After two years of coursework, three professors, each from the core areas the student has chosen, will oversee the qualifying exam. The last two years will consist of research and a thesis.

Christensen came to Tech two years ago from Stockholm, previously the coordinator for robotics research across 192 universities in Europe. He received his first degree in mechanical engineering, the second in electrical engineering and then in computer science. “Robotics is where the three meet,” he said. “A lot of interesting things happen when you cross the boundaries.”

In 1999, he met with other European researchers. “There was no European agenda on robotics research,” he said. The group started its own cooperative with four major goals in mind: research, education, increased industry transfer and public awareness. At the time when the European Robotics Research Network (EURON) started, there was practically no European funding for research on robotics. That since has grown into 300 million euro ($440 million).

He left the group two years ago to come to Tech, primarily at the urging of computing and robotics professor Ronald Arkin. In the last few years, the Swedish funding climate has changed, as they wanted to focus more on basic industrial applications, which didn’t jibe with Christensen’s focus.

“The big application is robotics helping people in their personal lives. Look at the demographics—there will be a significant aging population in the next few years.” Christensen thinks advanced robotics could help this group stay autonomous. He uses other examples of robotics assisting humans today. Already, heart surgery is increasingly performed with the use of robotic instruments, trimming the recovery time to a few days. “We are starting to see surgery on a beating heart,” Christensen says.

It has taken a year to “transfer the reins” from his role in EURON, Christensen said, but now he’s free to devote his full time to the rapidly growing robotics program.
From a personal research perspective, he says he wants to tackle the challenge of building an intelligent machine. “From an engineering standpoint, if we can build this, we can build anything.”


 

 

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