Joanne Pransky, associate editor of Industrial Robot, recently sat down with Dr. Howie Choset, a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University and chief technical officer at the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute. Choset is perhaps best known for robotics collaboration to develop snake robots and other devices for use in healthcare and exploration.
Choset has B.S. degrees in engineering and economics from the University of Pennsylvania, and he obtained his master’s and Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and robotics from the California Institute of Technology.
Since 1996, Choset has been a professor of robotics at CMU and director of the CMU Biorobotics Lab. He is also director of CMU’s undergraduate major and minor of robotics.
Along with his students, Choset formed several companies including Medrobotics (2005) for surgical systems, Hebi Robotics (2014) for modular robots, and Bito Robotics (2017) for autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs). Medrobotics’ snake robots have received U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for colorectal and otolaryngology procedures.
This year, Choset co-led the formation of the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute, which is a $250 million national initiative for advancing technology development and education for robotics in manufacturing. Choset here discusses his interests in robotics collaboration and commercialization.
This interview is available free to Robotics Business Review readers until Oct. 31, 2017. Here’s a preview:
Pransky: What has been your most fun robotic project thus far, and why?
Choset: I really like collaborating with people, and it’s hard to say which collaboration is more fun than the other. I have wonderful collaborations with my students and even after they graduate, my students continue to teach me.
For example, I was just on the phone with Ross Hatton, who’s now a professor at Oregon State University, and he still supports me with the math that he figures out. I have another collaboration on medical robotics with Vanderbilt Professor Nabil Simaan, and while it’s very educational, we’ve become pretty good friends.
I have a similar professional and personal collaboration with Georgia Tech Professor Dan Goldman, who is a bounty of inspiration and great ideas.
I also enjoy going out in the field with the robots. One of my colleagues, Dr. Robin Murphy, has gotten me out in the field to do search and rescue training with a few of our robots, along with a few of my students. We’ve been in archaeological sites in Egypt with Kathryn Bard, nuclear power plants in Austria with Florian Enner, and demonstrated robots in museums with Kathleen McCarthy.
Then there’s the commercial side — I’ve started three companies with my students, and I love the fact that I get to stay with them a little bit longer as we’re now taking the research and making it into something that someone wants to buy.
Pransky: What has been your most commercially successful robotics collaboration or project?
Choset: I define commercial success as being able to sell enough products to generate revenue, to not only sustain an enterprise, but [also] to have profit. I started three companies, and none of those companies have reached that level yet.
That being said, I would hardly say any of the companies are failures. Medrobotics, for example, has cleared the FDA, operated on people, and received over $140 million in investment. The robots are being sold; we just need to sell a lot of robots to recover the initial investments.
Pransky: When applying your research to the real world, did you approach robotics collaborators in industry, or did they ask you to develop prototypes?
Choset: For Medrobotics, I had two other co-founders — Alon Wolf and Marco Zenati, a cardiac surgeon. The three of us started the company, and what really got us going was we hooked up with Jim Jordan, who is the CEO of an organization called the Pittsburgh Life Science Greenhouse.
Jim got our marketing vision going and then introduced us to management talent, and at the same time, I met potential investors and finally came across investor Mel Pirchesky, who coordinates a network for a large group of people. He figured out which people would want to invest in what, and he put small money together, then we got a big investment. With that big investment from Mel and Sam’s leadership and Jim Jordan’s vision, we were able to bring the robot to a readiness level that operates on a person.
Pransky: If you could wave a magic wand to solve one technological problem, what would it be?
Choset: Stronger, smaller actuators; better software support to program and develop robots; modularity; and more development tools for quicker development.
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Pransky: What is the biggest mistake/greatest lesson you learned?
Choset: On the technical side, I have made tons of mistakes but few very big ones. However, it’s not a matter if you’re right or wrong; it’s a process which you learn as you go and maximize what you can do.
The things that I regret about my career is not spending enough time with my students. Often, I have one small thing that I have to get done, and then have another small thing that comes next. This took too much time from my student meetings and time together.
On the flip side, my greatest lesson to my students is always follow your gut. If your gut instinct says do X, then ultimately you should do X. If you’re not doing X, and your gut’s nagging at you, and if this means, for example, you think you should be the one in charge and assert your opinion, then be in charge. If you feel like you’re being pushed around, push back, but always go with your gut.
Pransky: Are you able to discuss the technology behind your latest startup, Bito Robotics for autonomous guided vehicles?
Choset: Bito is my third startup with my students. We’re developing both systems and components for AGVs, and what we’ve been able to do is identify some markets — which I obviously can’t disclose –where AGVs haven’t been traditionally used. We’re developing both new AGVs as well as technologies that will retrofit to existing AGVs.
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