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October 4, 2007

   

Bryn Mawr Computer Scientist Is a P.I.
in $2.5 Million Humanoid-Robot Project

Bryn Mawr College has long been at the forefront of developing scientists in the traditional fields of chemistry, biology and physics. Now it is also becoming a hotbed in the emerging field of robotics research.

Bryn Mawr, four other U.S. universities and three Korean universities have been awarded a five-year National Science Foundation Partnerships for International Research and Education (PIRE) grant for $2.5 million to advance humanoid-robot design and capabilities in the United States and Korea.

This announcement comes just a little more than a year after Bryn Mawr joined Georgia Tech and the Microsoft Corporation to create the Institute for Personal Robots in Education (IPRE).

Humanoids are bipedal robots engineered to mimic human locomotion, balance and coordination. The robots have given researchers insight on issues ranging from balance disorders to cognition and perception.
In addition to Bryn Mawr, the U.S. universities taking part in the program are Drexel University, the University of Pennsylvania, Virginia Tech, and Swarthmore College.  The Korean universities are the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, Seoul National University and Korea University.

The goal of the project is to create a three-tier set of tools for exploring humanoid robotics: a virtual humanoid, a mini humanoid (about two feet tall), and a larger humanoid (about four feet tall, called HUBO). The project fills a critical gap that has so far prevented further advances in robotics. These tools will provide the humanoid-research community with multiple opportunities to engage in advancing humanoid capabilities.

Bryn Mawr students will be involved with each tier, but the focus on campus will be on virtual HUBO.


"By creating a virtual HUBO, we'll get to construct our own universe where we define the laws of physics — gravity, friction, everything," said Computer Science Chair Doug Blank, who is one of the project's co-principal investigators and the co-director of IPRE.  "We'll also try to make a simple interface for researchers, students and student-researchers to explore the issues in humanoid robotics."

Blank sees this project as the logical extension of robotics research that is currently taking place at Bryn Mawr but which has involved wheeled or four-legged robots.

"This project will extend experience that we have already gained by using the robotic dogs that we h+ave in the lab. Walking robots, either four-legged or two-legged, are quite interesting because it is so much about balance. Humans walk so naturally that we don't even think about it. We'll be doing a lot of thinking about it," Blank said.

In addition to providing student research opportunities here, the PIRE grant may provide an opportunity for Bryn Mawr students to study in Korea.

"There are still details that need to be worked out, but I suspect that it will involve students going over to Korea for short and medium-length trips to learn the details of the software and hardware of their humanoid-robotics systems.  It's also a great cultural opportunity for our students," said Blank.

Bryn Mawr's computer-science department and the Institute for Personal Robots in Education made headlines last spring for offering the first introductory computer-science course in which every student was given a personal robot to program and debug.

"The computer science faculty has done a tremendous job of creating a vibrant program that's enabling students to do cutting-edge research and participate in ground-breaking classes," said Provost Kim Cassidy.

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