January 08, 2007
Nation's First Robotics Engineering Degree Program
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Jeff Rowe - Managing Editor

by Jeff Rowe - Contributing Editor
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Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) announced that it plans to offer the nation's first bachelor's degree program in robotics engineering starting in the fall of 2007.

The new major grows out of an increasing demand for robots and robotics systems to meet national needs in such areas as defense and security, elder care, automation of household tasks, customized manufacturing, and interactive entertainment, and also responds to the escalating interest in robots among young people.

"Robotics is one the fastest growing areas of technology and has the potential to change many aspects of our world and greatly improve human life," noted Carol Simpson, WPI's provost and senior vice president. "This major is designed to prepare a new breed of engineer with the skills and imagination to develop machines that go far beyond today's reality. Meeting this challenge requires an approach to engineering education that crosses academic boundaries, since no single discipline can provide the necessary breadth."

In the program, to be offered jointly by the Computer Science, Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering departments, students will receive a firm grounding in the fundamentals of these three fields, and learn to apply them to design and build robots and robotic systems for a wide variety of emerging applications. Graduates will be well-prepared for careers in the rapidly expanding robotics industry and for graduate work in the field. The program also includes an entrepreneurship course to ensure that students have the skills they need to turn their robotics ideas into viable businesses.

"Whether in science fiction or real life, robots have the power to fire young people's imaginations and spur their interest in technology," Simpson added. "By building upon our already extensive involvement in robotics competitions and K-12 outreach programs, this program can help WPI respond to a national imperative by attracting more young people -- particularly girls -- into science and engineering. At the same time, we will be helping the United States build the innovative, technically advanced workforce it will need to assure its technical and scientific leadership well into the 21st century."

The robotics engineering program will draw on the expertise of more than 20 associated faculty and staff members and capitalize on the university's involvement in high-profile robotics competitions over the past 15 years. Each year, the university sponsors three major competitions that engage well over 1,200 local and regional elementary-, middle-, and high-school students. In addition, university faculty, staff, and students conduct robotics demonstrations at 70 schools and organizations throughout the region and work with K-12 schools on curriculum development and other robotics outreach programs.

Since 1992, WPI has sponsored a team in the international robotics competition organized by FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), which was created by WPI alumnus Dean Kamen, founder and president of DEKA Engineering and Development Corp. in Manchester, N.H., and inventor of the Segway Human Transporter.

Development of the robotics engineering program was guided by an advisory board comprising representatives of several leading robotics companies in Massachusetts, which has more than 150 companies, institutions, and research labs in the field employing more than 150,000 people. Members include Helen Greiner, chairman of iRobot Corp. in Burlington, Mass., maker of the popular Roomba floor-cleaning robots; Brian Abraham, president of Bluefin Robotics in Cambridge, Mass., developer of robotic undersea vehicles; and Brian Hart, president of Black-I Robotics in Bedford, Mass., manufacturer of low-cost, expendable robots for military and civilian applications. Dean Kamen is also a member.

The new program, which will receive a final review from the university's Board of Trustees in February, is the third interdisciplinary undergraduate major developed by WPI during the past two years. Interactive Media and Game Development (IMGD), offered jointly by the Computer Science and Humanities and Arts departments, began in 2004. A program in environmental engineering will be offered by Chemical Engineering and Civil and Environmental Engineering starting next fall.

Founded in 1865 in Worcester, Mass., WPI was one of the nation's first engineering and technology universities.

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Commentary By Jeffrey Rowe, Editor

What a way to start 2007 – an exciting new educational program that should draw interest from both potential students and prospective employers! Things robotic are big and getting bigger as evidenced by this new robotics degree program at WPI (Also see the first item in “The Week’s Top 5” below). I’m a “plain vanilla” mechanical engineer, and if I had it to do all over again I would definitely go the robotic route because, one, it encompasses much more than just mechanics and, two, the field has so much potential.

This new robotics education program is part of a bigger trend that I see moving away from traditional mechanical engineering and toward a more comprehensive range of disciplines known as mechatronics. I think one of the things that makes mechatronics so compelling is the sheer number of areas that it takes into consideration, including mechanics, electrical components, electronics, controllers, sensors, and software. That’s a pretty long list of areas of knowledge, but all are increasingly necessary as robots evolve and become more sophisticated. This long list will also require special students who have the ability and desire to learn so much across such a wide spectrum of topics.

I say that the future looks good because the use of robotics will continue to expand in areas such as robotic highway safety markers; planetary exploration; precise measurements of large structures, such as train lines; and medical/surgical applications. It is the last item that is especially exciting because it takes things a step even further to include principles of bioengineering. For example, although laparoscopic techniques have allowed surgeons to perform operations through small incisions, the benefits of laparoscopy are still limited to less complex procedures because of losses in imaging and dexterity compared to conventional surgery. Miniature robots could be developed to be
placed within the abdominal cavity to assist a surgeon. These remotely controlled in vivo robots could provide a surgeon with an enhanced field of view from arbitrary angles, as well as provide dexterous manipulators not constrained by small incisions in the abdominal wall. Although possibilities like this might sound far-fetched today, they could very well become reality in the not too distant future.

As kind of a side benefit to a wider acknowledgement and importance placed on robotics, I’ve been following a project at the University of Nebraska that has studied simplified robot programming using an approach to Programming by Demonstration (PbD) called What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) robot programming. Unlike traditional robot programming that can get complicated quickly, here the user “explains” the action to a robot rather than “demonstrating” the action. Using this approach, generalization occurs after every demonstration example and the generalized program is then visually presented to the user. This approach lets the user direct the
generalization process, where the user may use this feedback to better convey the intent for the actions of the robot to accomplish specific tasks. The WYSIWYG approach differs from other PbD systems because it assumes that only the user has a true understanding of his or her intent.

Don’t think that the MCAD software vendors haven’t noticed the growing interest in robotics either. Notably, both Autodesk and SolidWorks sponsor several types and levels of robotic educational programs and competitions.

Admittedly, there are a number of colleges and universities that offer a lot of the bits and pieces of the proposed WPI program (such as the program at the University of Nebraska), but as far as I know, no other institution offers as focused a robotic curriculum as WPI. About 40 years ago in the movie, “The Graduate,” the character Benjamin Braddock (played by Dustin Hoffman), when asked about his plans for the future was told to, “Think plastics.” Well, 40 years hence I would heartily recommend to anyone looking for a career with a bright future to, “Think robotics.”

The Week’s Top 5

At MCADCafé we track many things, including the stories that have attracted the most interest from our subscribers. Below are the five news items that were the most viewed during last week. 

Aiming to expand the pool of skilled engineers in the U.S., SolidWorks Corp. continues to sponsor robot design competitions to give students a taste of real-world engineering projects with free licenses of SolidWorks 3D CAD and COSMOS design analysis software. Students in middle school through college use the software in these competitions to quickly learn CAD concepts and discover their engineering creativity. Since 2003, SolidWorks has worked with different organizations to sponsor competitions that give students hands-on experience in planning, designing, testing, building, presenting,
and operating robots in term- or year-long competitions. Students learn to work in teams, create bills of materials, order parts, work with industry experts, and make deadlines. SolidWorks is donating software licenses to the following competitions:

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-- Jeff Rowe, MCADCafe.com Contributing Editor.


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