Industry Watch


How the Center for Distributed Robotics and its director Nikolaos Papanikolopoulos shape Minnesota's robotics industry — and the future

If you want a glimpse of the future, a good place to look is the Center for Distributed Robotics. Part of the University of Minnesota's College of Science and Engineering, it's the "birthplace" of small but powerful robots that can roll, tumble, and fly over obstacles on land and in water. Some can serve as extended "eyes" to help military personnel in battle; others can help diagnose mental disorders.

The center's success in researching and developing innovative robotics technology has made it a standout both in the field and among the university's many academic and research programs. One of its signature inventions is a wheeled robot that can instantly deploy helicopter blades and fly over obstacles. In January, the university was issued a patent for the small reconnaissance device, which is being used by the U.S. Army for tactical surveillance.

The technology was commercialized by Edina-based ReconRobotics, a center spinoff whose robots are in use by the U.S. military, international friendly forces, and more than 550 federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies around the world.

The center's lab has more than 100 midsize, small, and miniature robots in various stages of research and development. The objective is to create inexpensive, multi-robot systems that communicate via a wireless network. Center researchers have expertise in hardware design and algorithms, and they work with the university's Computer Vision Lab to develop the sensors that enable the robots to function independently.

The center is led by director Dr. Nikolaos Papanikolopoulos, an electrical and computer engineer from Greece who came to the university in 1992 after earning advanced degrees at Carnegie Mellon University. Papanikolopoulos specializes in robotics, computer vision, and sensors for transportation uses.

Many of the graduate students and researchers at the center have backgrounds in engineering and computer sciences, but developing and commercializing effective robots also encompasses other disciplines, ranging from architecture to psychology to ergonomics, Papanikolopoulos notes. The common denominator, he says, is "people with open minds and creativity." To date, more than 80 students have graduated from the center and hold influential positions in the industry and academia.

The center specializes in so-called "hybrid" robots that have the ability to move on the ground, fly, or move through water. The fact that the robots developed at the center are small enough to be hand-held  and even thrown  is one of the keys to their adoption by military and law enforcement agencies, according to Papanikolopoulos. "If a robot is heavy, they are not going to use it in the field," he says. "But one marine told me that if a robot weighs only a half-pound or a pound, he's willing to carry it in the field to save lives."

In 2006, ReconRobotics was formed to commercialize robotics technology developed at the university with funding from the U.S. government's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Today, it's the second-largest producer of military and police robots in the world, and its distribution network includes more than 30 countries. In July, it passed the 4,000 mark in robots sold. Fast Company magazine recently declared ReconRobotics the world's second-most inventive robotics company.

The company's Throwbot and Recon Scout robot lines are used by the military and law enforcement agencies in hazardous situations, transmitting video images to identify threats in potentially dangerous settings. For example, FBI agents who raided the home of a ricin-letter suspect earlier this year used a ReconRobotics mini-robot.

One of the center's most recent inventions may also be its most impressive to date: a noninvasive system that enables people to control a flying robot using only their mind. It was developed in the lab of biomedical engineering professor Bin He, who has dedicated his career to developing a 3D brain-computer interface.

The technology uses a skullcap covered with 64 electrodes and fitted to an individual's head. The electrodes detect electric currents produced by neurons in the brain's motor cortex region. When an individual thinks about a movement, certain neurons are activated and trigger the electrodes on the skullcap. A computer receives the electrodes' command via wi-fi and signals the robot to perform the movement.

With practice the individual can steer the robot, causing it to turn, rise, fall, and maneuver around obstacles, all through the use of thought.

Five subjects who took part in the study were each able to successfully control the four-blade flying robot, also known as a quadcopter, for a sustained amount of time. In June, the Journal of Neural Engineering published the study that led to its development, which has great potential to help those who are paralyzed or have neurodegenerative diseases, according to researchers.

While most of the early uses of the robots created at the center have been military-related, Nikolopolous says it's their potential for medical and health applications that is closest to his heart. With scientists beginning to create brain-robot interfaces, Papanikolopoulos says he's excited about the prospect of some day  not too far in the future  when small robots can be used to help diagnose common mental disorders in children. That would allow for earlier and more effective therapeutic interventions, such as cognitive therapy, he says.

"If you intervene with someone 30 years old who has obsessive-compulsive disorder [OCD], that is too late," he says. "But, imagine an environment where we can find [disease] markers in the brain early enough to help them. These are devices that can have tremendous health benefits and make us all safer."

In 2011, a research team led by Papanikolopoulos won two grants totaling more than $3 million from the National Science Foundation's Cyber-Enabled Discovery and MRI Programs to create robotic devices and computer-vision algorithms that will assist with the early diagnosis of children at risk of developing disorders such as autism, attention deficit disorder, and OCD.

The team is developing robotic instruments that could observe and analyze abnormalities in children's movements and behaviors, using facial expressions and body positions. The cross-disciplinary research combines the fields of computer vision/robotics and computer science with child psychology and psychiatry.

On the topic of health care, Papanikolopoulos points out that it took some time for surgical robots to become standard tools in operating rooms nationwide, after overcoming initial skepticism and resistance on the part of physicians. "The majority of prostate cancer surgeries these days are done by Davinci robots," which allow smaller incisions and less pain for patients. "When one considers the fact that, a few years back, doctors were unwilling to use them  now, they don't want to perform surgery without robots  that really highlights where we are today."

For decades, the use of robots to perform human tasks in the workplace has been a source of contention among some economists, who cite a "job killing" effect. Papanikolopoulos considers that a fallacious argument. "Automation can take boring, dangerous jobs out of the workplace and create lots of new jobs; we need robot operators."

He also points out robots' potential to make businesses more efficient, citing the example of fully automated warehouses which can automatically fill orders around the clock.

Andrew Borene, director of corporate development at ReconRobotics, says the university's robotics center has the assets necessary to "be a linchpin in development of high growth in the robotics industry." He notes that the university has been a key sponsor of Robotics Alley, an initiative (of which he is chair and executive director) that spurs public-private partnerships in the business, research, and development of world-leading robotics and automation systems.

The center's initiatives in forming publicprivate research partnerships with companies such as Polaris Industries, Lockheed Martin, and ReconRobotics have been a key growthdriver, says Borene, who calls Papanikolopoulos "a hidden gem  he knows everybody in this industry on the R&D side and has an excellent reputation."

William Beksi, an engineer and second-year Ph.D. student at the center, says one of the center's strengths is its multidisciplinary nature. "It's really interesting to work with people from different fields," he says.

Papanikolopoulos is also one of the center's assets, Beksi says: "He's a great advisor who is able to steer us in the right direction. He's also very able to get funding, which is a big concern for graduate students. If you do good work here, you have a really good chance to get funding."

So how will robotics affect the world in the future? "A lot of people believe robotics is the new Internet," Papanikolopoulos says. "I wouldn't make that statement. But robotics can be transformative for our lives."