Robotics at the University of Pennsylvania
The year 1961 saw robotics leave science fiction and enter the real world. Vijay Kumar, the Nemirovsky Family Dean of Penn Engineering with appointments in the departments of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, Computer and Information Science, and Electrical and Systems Engineering, says General Motors installed its first robot to handle steel ingots that year, which gave birth to industrial robotics. These were awkward machines that had to be bolted down to the shop floor. “Things had to be brought to the robot, the robot would do X, Y, or Z task, and then the applications would have to be taken away,” Kumar says.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that engineers began to make robots mobile—adding legs or wheels—allowing them to travel to a task for the first time. “Robots could go to applications, and the whole world is your laboratory potentially,” Kumar says. “That not only opened up opportunities, but it also raised the ante because now you had to incorporate in the robot the ability to reason about its surroundings and infer something about where it was in the environment.”
That innovation came just a few years after the founding of the GRASP Lab, established in 1979 by Ruzena Bajcsy, former chair and professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Pennsylvania.
Ruzena Bajcsy (center), former chair and professor of computer science and engineering, with other members of the GRASP Lab, circa 1984. Bajcsy founded the GRASP Lab in 1979.
The field continued to expand to include experts from the disciplines of both electrical and mechanical engineering.
One of those roboticists was Kumar, who served as director of the Lab from 1998 to 2004.
“We [at the GRASP Lab] were doing interdisciplinary research long before anyone knew what that meant,” says Kumar, who has been at Penn for 25 years. “When it [began], it started in computer science. I was the first mechanical engineering person to come in, and when I was director, by the end, we had roughly one-third mechanical engineers, one-third computer scientists, and one-third electrical engineers. To me, that mix was very important.”
Today, that mix is the backbone of robotics at Penn.
“We have great faculty from many different departments— ESE [Electrical and Systems Engineering], CIS [Computer and Information Science], MEAM [Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics], and even beyond Engineering, like the Medical School—that are put all together in one place,” says Lee, who has been at Penn since 2001. He’s served as director of the GRASP Lab for a little more than a year. “Then we recruit students from the entire spectrum—undergrad, masters, Ph.D.s, postdocs. That’s because robotics is an exciting field to be in—there’s opportunity to form connections to industry, government, alumni, youth, the whole gamut.” But it provides more than just opportunities—the interdisciplinary approach to robotics spearheaded by the GRASP Lab forges real innovations, with real applications. “The thing that makes the GRASP Lab really wonderful is the culture of collaboration,” says Mark Yim, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics. “It’s co-located in the sense that we have this one big space where all of our, or most of our, Ph.D. students reside. I think there are very few places that have enough of a critical mass, in terms of professors that are all doing robotics on the different areas at the same time.”
ROBOTICS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA was produced and developed by the following individuals from the Office of University Communications: