July 15, 2014      

Founded in 1865, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) is one of the nation’s oldest engineering and technology universities. Past WPI technology innovators include Robert Goddard (the original rocket man) and Dean Kamen (who didn’t graduate, but still managed to invent the Segway).

Located in Worcester, Mass., WPI continues to blaze new technology trails, particularly in robotics. Although long overshadowed in robotics research by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), its colossal Bay State rival, WPI continues to make important, albeit largely unheralded, contributions to the advancement of robotics education and innovation.

Building on a legacy

Robotics education and research at WPI extends back more than 30 years, says Michael A. Gennert, director of the robotics engineering program in WPI’s computer science department. “We’ve taught industrial robotics and have had an industrial robotics laboratory for a very long time,” he says.

Yet despite its long robotics track record, WPI is also committed to changing with the times. “With the invention of the Roomba by iRobot about 10 years ago, all of a sudden robotics wasn’t just these big machines, there were now smaller machines coming out of the lab into our living rooms,” Gennert says. “So we started teaching a more modern set of robotics courses.”

A first step, taken in 2007, was the creation of an Introduction to Robotics course. “That proved to be very popular,” Gennert says. “It helped us to get going and we added more courses right after that.”

In fact, almost immediately thereafter, WPI launched its robotics engineering program.

“We offered the first undergraduate robotics major in the United States,” Gennert says. “No one had done it before, and we thought it was a great opportunity in light of the fact that robotics was becoming more important.”

A master’s degree program followed in 2009 and, in 2011, a Ph.D. degree program debuted.

WPI shook up robotics education in 2013 with the first online masters degree program.

“When we rolled it out last fall, it really exceeded our initial expectations for first year enrollment,” says Lew Rose, assistant director of WPI’s corporate and professional education program. “We had a size range that we were trying to keep within during our first year, and we met that size requirement.”

Rose notes that the total number of enrollees in the first year was in the “high teens.”

“We made a conscious effort to start small,” Rose says. “We wanted to make sure that as we expand this program, we move carefully and eliminate any of the speed bumps we might find along the way.”

Rose says he’s pleased by the quality of applicants the program has attracted. “They’re mostly working professionals, primarily in the New England area, but we also have some students from outside New England,” he says. “We get a lot of inquiries from working professionals who aren’t able to come back to school full time, but are extremely interested in earning a masters degree in robotics if there was a way they could do it through distance learning online.”

The biggest challenge program administrators currently face is finding applicants who are both interested and qualified.

“There’s a lot of people who look at the program and say, ‘Oh, you know, I’ve always been interested in robotics,'” Rose says. Yet such individuals aren’t likely to possess the prerequisites necessary to tackle a master’s-level course.

Rose says that an applicant should have a background in mechanical, electrical or computer engineering or computer science. The program also assumes an applicant is at least familiar with object-oriented programming, Java, C++ or Python. “We have some places to refer applicants to for refresher courses if they want to brush up their skills,” Rose says.

The 30-credit program includes both core courses and electives. “It’s a total of eight courses, plus a capstone project, which actually counts as two courses,” Rose says.

The capstone project expects the student will use his or her knowledge and skills to solve a real-world robotics challenge. “The capstone is really the project base,” Rose notes.

The masters degree doesn’t require any particular hands-on, lab experience. “The undergraduate major has a fair amount of lab work in it, but the masters program has a mixture of software and simulation and theory,” Gennert says. “So it turns out that one can craft the online program so we don?t rely upon the in-person labs.

Robotics research that matters

Education represents only half of WPI’s mission. The school also has a long history of conducting cutting-edge research, extending back to Goddard’s early liquid-fuel rocket experiments. “There are several areas where we have some really strong research projects,” Gennert says. “One of them is medical robotics — robots for image-guided surgery or for MRI-enabled surgery.”

Related: WPI Surgical Robot Guided by MRI Images

Healthcare robotics is currently a prime research area for WPI faculty and students.

“We have, right now, a surgical robot designed here that’s undergoing clinical trials at a hospital in Boston,” Gennert says. “It’s very exciting to see our faculty and students in surgical garb in the O.R. minding their robot while it’s doing surgery.”

Assistive robotics is another top interest.

“We’re making a smart robotic wheelchair to give users more independence, Gennert says. “Even if they have trouble handling a regular or motorized wheelchair, a wheelchair that’s smart and robotic lets them go wherever they want to go.”

WPI researchers are also working on exo-musculature devices, wearable systems that are designed to give users extra strength or mobility, “such as a robotic glove or a robotic sleeve that helps a person who doesn’t have enough hand or arm strength,” Gennert says.

Earlier this year, two WPI robotics researchers received awards from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) National Robotics Initiative to investigate and solve the challenges associated with robots working alongside people in settings such as manufacturing plants and retirement homes.

Dmitry Berenson, a WPI assistant professor of computer science and robotics engineering, is the principal investigator of a three-year, $600,000 award for a project that draws on the disparate fields of robot motion planning and human task planning (PDF). Berenson will develop algorithms that will permit robots to collaborate with people on manufacturing operations.

Berenson will collaborate with Julie Shah, an assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, and director of the Interactive Robotics Group in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, to study how robots can safely and productively cooperate with people to build products in small-scale manufacturing operations.

Berenson is an expert in motion planning, a technique that will be used to examine how different people perform the same task in different ways. In laboratory studies at MIT and WPI, volunteers will carry out several basic assembly tasks as their actions are captured with cameras and laser scanners.

The recordings will be used to create a library of human task behaviors that can be integrated with algorithms to enable the robots to answer the “what” and “how” questions about their human partners.

In the project’s final stage, the team will have human volunteers collaborate with robots on assembly tasks to measure the machines’ impact on productivity and to see how comfortable people are collaborating with robot co-workers.

Sonia Chernova, an assistant professor of computer science and robotics engineering, is co-principal investigator of a three-year, $425,000 award for research that will draw on the experience of thousands of online “teachers” to learn more about how “everyday people” can most effectively show robots how to do simple tasks.

While Berenson’s project will focus on robots that co-exist with people as collaborators, Chernova’s research will look at robots that are designed to be personal helpers. She is hoping to determine how people who have no experience programming robots can teach robots to perform simple tasks.

The ability for people who are not programmers to train robots will be essential if robots are to assist the elderly or disabled in their homes. Her research team will use an Internet-based virtual lab to observe how subjects train robots to perform such tasks as folding laundry or setting the table.

Developing future robotics talent

Robotics engineering has rapidly become one of WPI’s signature programs. “We’ve come from not having much in robotics to being one of the top 10 universities in robotics in the country,” Gennert says. “And we’re very happy to be able to bring our program to a wider audience through online studies.”

Gennert attributes much of the robotic engineering program’s success to the school’s faculty.

“We have about 14 core faculty members who do most of the robotics teaching,” he says. “Another 20 affiliated faculty also do research and advise projects that relate to robotics.”

As WPI’s robotics reputation rises, the school finds itself increasingly attractive to highly qualified educators and researchers.

“They come from some great schools — MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Perdue, Johns Hopkins,” Gennert says. “They form a really nice nucleus of young faculty who are passionate about robotics.”

With its research activities and on-campus and online programs, Gennert believes WPI is now poised to play a major role in shaping the future robotics market. “We’re helping develop the talent that will lead the robotics industry,” he says.