Most often, the association of a sci-fi, Westworld-like vision of robots and the term ‘robotics’ is merely overly-disseminated stuff of fantasy. When it comes to innovations occurring in the engineering department of the University of Texas, a science fiction-centric view of robotics does not seem far-fetched.
What I say is, ‘How can we make fiction a reality today?’ Especially in the sense of making it economically make sense, says Dr. Luis Sentis, an associate professor in UT’s Cockrell School’s Department of Aerospace Engineering.
Dr. Sentis has headed programs commissioned and funded by the American government, including NASA, the Office of Naval Research, DARPA, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Defense. The latter two governmental entities awarded Sentis and his team two new grants this summer. That funding can generally be said to be dedicated to ‘the future of robotics’, and the specifics of that future – along with the already substantial stable of UT-developed robots – were once resigned to the realm of the imagination.
According to Texas Exes, in accordance with the grants ‘the group will work on humanoid machines designed to facilitate human exploration of Mars (think walking, talking sci-fi robots) and robotic exoskeletons (think mechanical suits) to give the wearer greater strength and endurance.’ Sentis’ team of PhD students have already established their bona fides with the government, having developed the actuators for NASA’s R5, or Valkyrie, robot.
Sentis has a significant history with NASA, having spent 15 months stationed at their Johnson Space Center and being granted the NASA Elite Team Award for his work on its Software Robotics and Simulation Division and on the Valkyrie. When it comes to the exploratory space robots for which NASA has commissioned Sentis’ expertise, he explains that legged, human-like robots have an advantage in setting up the makings of a livable environment, as opposed to the purely exploratory nature of rovers. He also emphasizes that his work – which he prefers to refer to as the advancement of ‘human-centered robots’ – specializes in robotics that assists humans, primarily in terms of providing protection and the handling of dangerous tasks.
In an essay, Sentis wrote ‘If you think of “productivity” for robotics generally in a manufacturing setting, it can be measured in terms of hours of work performed and profits earned. But in a long space journey to Mars, productivity will be measured instead in terms of the astronauts’ enhanced safety and ability to accomplish difficult tasks. In a hazmat spill, productivity might be measured in terms of human lives saved.’
Working out of UT’s Human Centered Robotics Laboratory, Sentis built Dreamer, a robot that mimics human movements and interactions, including defensive postures. These human-like replicative qualities are at the core of what Sentis’ team – who took third prize in an international robotics competition in 2017 – aims to achieve in their humanoid robots, a goal for which they have received significant funding from the government.
Whether his team is working on an exoskeleton which provides the user super-human strength capabilities, advancing the bodyguard-like Dreamer form of robots, or assisting NASA in humanoid robotics equipped for the future of space exploration and incorporation, one can be certain that at any given moment Dr. Sentis and his University of Texas-based team is pushing the cutting edge of ‘human-centered’ robotics.