Student thrives at nexus of art and engineering

A picture of Paris Myers.

Paris Myers’ time at Oregon State University took the shape of a collage with a bit of everything in the mix.

An Honors College student graduating this spring with bachelor’s degrees in bioengineering and fine arts and minors in art history and popular music, Myers has been, among other things, an undergraduate researcher at Oregon State’s Collaborative Robotics and Intelligent Systems  Institute, a visiting research intern at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, an intern for, and co-leader of Oregon State’s 2021 Marine Energy Collegiate Competition team that placed in a national competition.

It’s no wonder, then, that she was recently awarded the Joe Hendricks Scholarship for Academic Excellence and will be honored with a video highlighting her accomplishments at Oregon State’s 2022 Commencement.

“I’m extremely grateful to be awarded the Joe Hendricks scholarship,” Myers said. “There are hundreds of excellent graduating students at OSU, including 36 other nominees for this honor. I can’t emphasize that enough.”

Myers was nominated by her Honors thesis co-chair, Skip Rochefort, associate professor of chemical engineering, who describes her as a thinker, learner, and maker to the highest degree.

“Paris will change the world, sooner rather than later,” Rochefort said.

Myers was shown the value in blending art and science via hands-on learning early on by her parents. Once she started Crescent Valley High School in Corvallis, she took a course called Introduction to Art and Engineering taught by Adam Kirsch. 

“In that class, I realized combining art and engineering empowered me to engineer in a way that put humanity first and created scalable impact,” Myers said. “I had an intrinsic curiosity.”

Paris Myers
Graduating from high school at 16, Myers committed to cultivating her dual art and engineering interests. Trusting her intuition about where she would best thrive, she contacted both Oregon State and the University of Oregon. Immediately and enthusiastically, Toni Doolen, dean of the Honors College and professor of industrial and manufacturing engineering, responded to her.

“It was just a match,” explained Myers. “A special shoutout to Dean Toni Doolen. I did things differently, and the Honors College supported me and stood behind my interdisciplinary approach to my education and research.”

While at Oregon State, Myers has engaged in research, internships, and other professional and charitable opportunities. Last summer, she received funding from Doolen and the Honors College and Larry Rodgers, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, to intern with the Harvard Biorobotics Laboratory. There, she co-created a study that combined haptics and soft robotics, visual art, and curatorial studies. Myers’ own curatorial experience began while interning with Oregon State’s Kirsi Peltomäki, professor of art and contemporary art historian.

“Dr. Peltomäki was my main advisor for my art history minor. I loved every second of it, and I’m honored to have her on Honors thesis committee” Myers said. “I also loved my experience doing a minor in popular music. I’m thankful and lucky to have earned the graduating senior music award.”

Inspired by Solomon Yim, professor of coastal and ocean engineering and structural engineering, who serves at her other Honors thesis co-chair, Myers will continue her passion for sustainable engineering by collaborating with interdisciplinary teams to promote renewable, innovative solutions.

Myers also serves her community through her art. When the pandemic struck in 2020, she launched her fundraising campaign, Paintings for Produce, working with Gathering Together Farm in Philomath to raise $10,000 for food donations to Benton County families through the commission of custom paintings. She also advocates for accessible education; in 2021, she interned for, a startup from the co-founder of Master Class that designs courses filling baccalaureate core credit requirements for all learners at a low cost.

Days after she graduates, Myers will join the MIT Media Lab’s biomechatronics team as a full-time researcher working with famed scientist Hugh Herr

“I’m thrilled to combine art and engineering — function and form — to create solutions that integrate the human body, design, and robotic systems,” Myers said.

As she reflects on her undergraduate career, Myers wishes success to current and prospective Oregon State engineering and arts students. She suggests it is OK not to know what they want at first, but they should “never take themselves out of a room” and trust their capacity to learn, even if nontraditionally.

“There are many different ways to be excellent,” Myers said. “How you create artwork, engineer systems, or solve problems might differ from how your peers do it. And that’s absolutely OK.”

June 7, 2022

Robots to the rescue

Oregon State joins forces with Carnegie Mellon to tackle DARPA Subterranean Challenge

The rescuers search for survivors in the darkness of a vast labyrinth, deep below the surface. They squeeze through tight spaces, navigate blind turns, scramble over obstacles, and struggle to avoid innumerable traps laid for them. One wrong turn could spell disaster. Communication is limited. And time is running out.

The “survivors” in this case are only mannequins, scattered throughout a section of the Louisville Mega Cavern, a former limestone mine that stretches downward and outward beneath 100 acres of Louisville, Kentucky. The rescuers are a band of semiautonomous robots developed by Team Explorer, a group
of graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, and faculty researchers from Oregon State University and Carnegie Mellon University.

They’ve come here, for three days in late September, to compete against other robot-human teams in the third and final round of the DARPA Subterranean Challenge, sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. At stake is a prize pool totaling $5 million, with the largest share going to the team that locates the greatest number of mannequins and other hidden artifacts — 40 in all, ranging in size from a cellphone to a backpack — in a 60-minute run.

The SubT Challenge seeks “to better equip warfighters and first responders to explore uncharted underground environments that are too dangerous, dark, or deep to risk human lives.” Over a stretch of nearly four years, the competition has engaged multidisciplinary teams from around the world to devise creative solutions to map subsurface networks, on the fly and in unpredictable conditions. It’s the kind of challenge that, by design, strains at the limits of existing hardware and software capabilities — in terms of autonomy, networking, perception, and mobility.

Members of Team Explorer rally behind their banner at the final round of competition, held in September in Louisville

Members of Team Explorer rally behind their banner at the final round of competition, held in September in Louisville.

Geoff Hollinger, associate professor of mechanical engineering and robotics at Oregon State, earned his doctorate from Carnegie Mellon in 2010 and collaborated with the CMU Robotics Institute on an autonomous tunnel-mapping project from 2015 to 2017. So, when the call for proposals came out for the SubT Challenge in early 2018, CMU tapped Hollinger to join them in putting together a dream team. Explorer’s proposal was one of only seven selected by DARPA to receive phased funding of $1.5 million per year, for up to three years of competition.

Rather than use off-the-shelf hardware, Explorer assembled a tight combo of rugged, tractorlike robots and collision-proof drones built from scratch by CMU engineers. The Oregon State contingent led development of the multirobot coordination algorithms that determine where the team should look for artifacts, while also making major contributions to the object-recognition system and user interface.

“There have been many technical challenges involved in getting the robots to successfully coordinate without redundancy and achieving reasonable object recognition with the perception systems, including camera, laser, and gas sensors,” Hollinger said. “The biggest challenge has been integrating all of the systems on our unique team of robots.”

Explorer comes into this final round strong, having proven
a worthy contender in two preliminary trials. The team came in first place in the Tunnel Circuit in the fall of 2019 and second in the Urban Circuit in early 2020. A planned third preliminary round, the Cave Circuit, was scrapped because of travel limitations imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Mega Cavern event includes challenge elements from all three subdomains.

“It was especially challenging to develop computationally efficient approaches that could run in real time onboard the robots as they traversed these diverse underground environments,” said Robert Debortoli, a doctoral student in Hollinger’s group.

Bereft of GPS and cellular connectivity, the robots must depend solely on their own systems to coordinate movements and relay information. Only one human teammate is allowed to provide direct supervision during the competition. Adding to the difficulty, the robots are going into the Mega Cavern blind, with no trial runs and no maps to guide them.

“The SubT Challenge requires the robots to perform well at the first attempt in an unseen environment,” said Graeme Best, a postdoctoral robotics scholar at Oregon State. “This has pushed the teams to develop solutions that work robustly across a wide range of environments.”

Explorer’s strategy involves having the wheeled robots scatter throughout the mazelike course, launching drones from their tails to extend the search farther, and distributing communication nodes along the way to create an ad hoc network. 

As the timer ticks down to zero, that approach appears to be working. Explorer has lived up to its name, surveying more of the course — an impressive 93% — than any other team, earning it the “Most Sectors Explored” award. However, the team fell a bit short in points scored, coming in fourth place overall. In the end, Explorer’s robots proved a bit too adept at identifying possible artifacts and overwhelmed their human teammate with reports, including some false positives.  

“We did a great job exploring the course, and ultimately we ended up sending back more artifacts than the operator could handle,” Hollinger said. “The operator ran out of time and wasn’t able to get to all of the ones that we saw.” Also participating on Team Explorer from Oregon State were master’s students Yu Hsuan (Chris) Lee and Emily Scheide, and recent graduate Manish Saroya, M.S. robotics ’21. Lee won a best paper award in May at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation for work performed during the competition.


March 21, 2022

The softer side of electronics

Callen Votzke working on a robot.

Soft robots are made of pliant, supple materials, such as silicone. Some can squeeze through tiny spaces or travel over broken ground — tasks that stymie rigid robots. The field of soft robotics is still in the early stages of development, but it offers remarkable potential. One day soon, soft robots may be used in applications as diverse as searching collapsed buildings or as exosuits that facilitate recovery from injuries or strokes.
But soft robots need soft circuits that can bend and stretch with the devices they inhabit. “Regular circuit boards are too rigid,” said Callen Votzke, a doctoral candidate in robotics and electrical and computer engineering, and a graduate fellow with the Semiconductor Research Corporation. His research has been devoted largely to developing circuits for soft robots and other stretchable electronics. 

A crucial component of those circuits is liquid metal made of gallium, indium, and tin, mixed with nickel microparticles, whose consistency resembles that of toothpaste. It’s used to connect microchips or sensors to create fully functional circuits, all encapsulated in channels within the silicone. 

The possibilities seem endless. For example, stretchable electronics could be used in physical therapy. “Imagine a silicone exosuit that makes sure rehab patients are doing their exercises correctly, and even assists their movements,” Votzke said. “As the liquid metal wires stretch and contract with the exosuit, their electrical resistance changes, and that information can be used to measure motion.” Using an early prototype, Votzke successfully demonstrated the idea’s feasibility. 

He’s also made important progress toward the development of a soft robotic gripper, which will be studded with dozens of microprocessors and sensors, all networked with liquid metal connections. (Rigid microprocessors and sensors  are so small nowadays that many of them can be embedded in a soft robot without compromising mobility.) Ideally, it will use only tactile feedback for determining the position and shape of objects and for grasping. “That would be a huge improvement on many current grasping technologies, which rely a lot on visual input,” Votzke said.  

Votzke and his colleagues in the lab of Matthew Johnston, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, meet regularly with another group of Oregon State researchers, led by Joe Davidson, assistant professor of robotics, whose goal is to build robotic grippers capable of picking fruits and vegetables. “Replicating that action with robotics is extremely challenging, but we’re getting closer,” Votzke said. 

Votzke says he feels lucky to attend Oregon State University for his doctorate. “The faculty have given me a tremendous amount of latitude, but also welcome guidance, to explore this field and to build things that almost nobody else in the world is building,” he said. “And I’ve developed industry connections that have given me a sense of where I can fit in after I leave the university to further develop my work.” 

Feb. 11, 2022

Printing soft silicone robots

A picture of John Morrow presenting his research to a small audience.

By changing the consistency of silicone rubber, John Morrow, a graduate student in robotics, enabled a 3D printer to assemble silicone into complex shapes. The breakthrough could hold the key to 3D printing of silicone soft-bodied robots. 

Morrow and his colleague, Osman Dogan Yirmibesoglu, a Ph.D. student in robotics, presented their findings at the 2017 Graduate Research Showcase. 

“The robotics field is looking closely at 3D printing as another way to build soft robots,” said Morrow, who is a joint M.S./Ph.D. student in robotics. He added that current techniques for building soft-bodied robots out of silicone, such as molding, are messy, fraught with human error, and limit design options. Silicone is well-suited for making soft robots because the material is so pliable (able to stretch to 900% of its initial dimensions). But before it’s cured, silicone is a runny liquid that doesn’t hold its shape when extruded through a 3D printer head. “It just forms puddles, so we needed a way to make the silicone firmer,” Morrow explained. 

Morrow and his team mixed an additive into the silicone supply that causes it to thicken. They also custom built a 3D printer head that mixes and extrudes the two component parts of silicone liquid. Once the silicone is deposited in the desired shape, heaters speed along the curing process to solidify it. The result is a solid but pliable silicone rubber. The technique has allowed the group to create complex geometries with seamless internal voids, which are crucial for soft-robot mobility. 

Soft robots are made to move by pumping air or liquid into their internal chambers. Exact movements, such as bending or twisting, can be controlled by how those hollow areas are shaped and constricted, so the ability to assemble robots with great precision is vital to assuring they move as intended. 

“Our focus is to make hollow objects without any internal support or seam, because seams can break easily when under pressure,” said Morrow. “Forming silicone soft robots using a 3D printer could release us from all limitations to future soft-robot design. We believe our technique imposes the fewest limits on whatever type of soft robots you want to make.” 

Morrow’s faculty advisor, Assistant Professor Yiğit Mengüç, added that the potential impact of 3D silicone printing reaches far beyond robotics and could lead to breakthroughs in other fields, such as medicine. “What’s really exciting is that this technique is not just for building soft robots,” he said. “Medical device manufacturers, for example, could use it to make highly flexible endoscopes, custom prosthetics, or devices we can’t even imagine yet. It opens up endless possibilities.”

— Steve Frandzel

Jan. 5, 2022
Associated Researcher

Cassie Steps into the limelight

Jonathan Hurst demonstrating Cassie the robot at Amazon's MARS conference.

Jonathan Hurst, associate professor of mechanical engineering, demonstrates Cassie the robot at Amazon's MARS 2017 Conference.
Photo courtesy of Amazon.

Oregon State University College of Engineering’s robotics program is growing rapidly, propelled by breakthrough innovations, and industry leaders are taking notice.

The college has recently spun off one of its first businesses, a company focused on legged locomotion that may revolutionize robot mobility and enable robots to go anywhere people can go.

The company, Agility Robotics, was co-founded by Jonathan Hurst, associate professor of mechanical engineering and College of Engineering Dean’s Professor, with Oregon State graduate Mikhail Jones and Hurst’s graduate school classmate Damion Shelton. Based in Albany, Oregon, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, it is licensing technologies first developed at the university and helping other academic and research institutions to grow the research community and educate a new generation of robotics engineers. 

“This technology will simply explode at some point, when we create vehicles so automated and robots so efficient that deliveries and shipments are almost free,” said Hurst. 

“Robots with legs can go a lot of places that wheels cannot. This will be the key to deliveries that can be made 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, by a fleet of autonomous vans that pull up to your curb, and an onboard robot that delivers to your doorstep.” 

Cassie stands next to a Blue Origin rocket

The company’s latest creation, a bipedal robot named “Cassie,” is getting a lot of attention, even garnering Hurst an invitation to Amazon’s exclusive MARS (Machine-Learning Automation, Robotics and Space Exploration) conference, where he showed off Cassie to a distinguished crowd of academics and business leaders. 

Cassie can stand, steer, and take a pretty good fall without breaking. It’s half the weight of and much more capable than earlier robots developed at Oregon State.

“Our previous robot, ATRIAS, had motors that would work against each other, which was inefficient,” Hurst said. “With Cassie, we’ve fixed this problem and added steering, feet, and a sealed system, so it will work outdoors in the rain and snow as we continue with our controller testing.” 

The particular issue of motors working against one another prompted some extensive theoretical research, to create the mathematical frameworks needed to solve the problem. The resulting leg configuration of Cassie looks much like an ostrich or other ground-running bird.

“We weren’t trying to duplicate the appearance of an animal, just the techniques it uses to be agile, efficient, and robust in its movement,” Hurst said.

“We didn’t care what it looked like and were mostly just working to find out why Mother Nature did things a certain way. But even though we weren’t trying to mimic the form, what came out on the other end of our research looked remarkably like an animal leg.”

Cassie, built with a 16-month, $1 million grant from the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the U.S. Department of Defense, is already one of the leading innovations in the world of legged robotics.

Company officials said they plan to do all initial production in Oregon and will focus their business on the commercial applications of legged robots. Hiring is anticipated for research, production, and development.

“The robotics revolution will bring with it enormous changes, perhaps sooner than many people realize,” Hurst said. “We hope for Agility Robotics to be a big part of that revolution. We want to change people’s lives for the better.”

Company officials said that access to the research base and education of students at Oregon State will aid its growth, providing the needed expertise and trained work force. Oregon State has already been ranked by Grad School Hub as the best in the western United States and fourth leading program in the nation in robotics research and education.

Dec. 3, 2021
Associated Researcher

Three College of Engineering marine energy initiatives to receive Department of Energy funding

Dylan Jones and Seth McCammon deploy a Seabotix remotely operated vehicle in the ocean

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office recently announced support of up to $22 million for 10 marine energy research projects, including three represented by researchers from Oregon State University’s College of Engineering. (The award amounts for each project are under negotiation.) 

“For industry to move toward commercialization, we need to utilize all of our available resources,” said  Daniel R. Simmons, assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy, in a Dec. 22 article on the DOE website. “With this funding opportunity, we addressed several critical gaps in the marine energy industry to advance early-stage R&D and build testing infrastructure, as well as foster collaboration among non-federal research entities.”

One of the proposed projects, led by Oregon State, will consider the co-design of marine energy converters for autonomous underwater vehicle docking and recharging. Two partner institutions, the University of Washington and the University of Hawaii at Manoa, will play supporting roles. 

“No one has been able to design a system to reliably dock an autonomous underwater vehicle with a marine energy converter in energetic ocean conditions,” said Geoff Hollinger, associate professor of mechanical engineering and robotics and Oregon State’s principal investigator for the energy converter project. “We would be the first to do that. It would open up a huge new market for inspection, monitoring, and repairs in marine energy systems without relying on expensive ship support.”

Testing will be conducted in the O.H. Hinsdale Wave Lab at Oregon State.

In a second project, researchers will test models for integrating marine energy into microgrids. Oregon State will support the work, which will be led by the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Microgrids are local energy grids that can be connected to the main energy grid or operated independently.

“Over the past few years, there’s been agreement on what are good models for wind generation and other renewable energy sources, but models for marine hydrokinetic converters need further validation and benchmarking,” said Eduardo Cotilla-Sanchez, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and Oregon State’s principal investigator for the microgrid project. “I’m most excited about bringing together the marine microgrid environment and the expertise of on-shore power engineers to leverage their historical knowledge of how to run power systems efficiently and safely, while advancing new forms of clean energy that the ocean provides.”

For the third project involving the College of Engineering, researchers will pursue the development of modeling methods that facilitate the design of wave energy converters. The venture will be led by the University of Washington and supported by Oregon State and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Energy Systems group inspect microgrid electrical equipment in at the Wallace Energy Systems & Renewables facility

Wave energy converters transform the kinetic and potential energy of ocean waves into mechanical or electrical energy.

“Our objective is to develop models for wave energy converters that bring electrical, hydrodynamic, and mechanical domains under one framework and that lead to improved simulation speed, flexibility, and design,” said Ted Brekken, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Oregon State and one of the researchers representing the team focused on the model’s electrical components.

Bryson Robertson, associate professor of coastal and ocean engineering at Oregon State and principal investigator for the wave energy modeling project, offered a broader context about the potential impact of all three endeavors: “The work will help to fill fundamental gaps in our knowledge of marine energy sources and to overcome barriers to the development of emerging technologies,” he said. “Ultimately we hope it leads to reduced costs and improved performance of renewable marine energy.” The projects will also offer cross-disciplinary research experiences for College of Engineering students.

March 26, 2021

Quest for Clean Water

Two researchers in a lab.

A Team Of Researchers With International Roots Is Collaborating To Tackle A Global Crisis

To say Bahman Abbasi is driven would be an understatement.

Just a year after joining Oregon State University, the assistant professor of mechanical engineering landed a $2 million grant from the Department of Energy to develop novel technology to turn saltwater into drinking water. At the time, it was the largest award in the history of OSU-Cascades, where his lab is located.

The next year, he received another $3 million from DOE to tackle the problem of treating hydraulic fracturing wastewater.

“Very broadly speaking, we have two main goals. The first, very modest goal is to save the world,” Abbasi said.

Globally, more than 785 million people lack access to basic drinking water, according to the World Health Organization. Climate change and population growth are intensifying water scarcity around the world. A study by the World Resources Institute found that the most water-stressed countries are
in the Middle East and North Africa. But India’s reservoirs are drying up, and there are even pockets of extremely high water stress in the U.S., in places like New Mexico. Other developed Western countries, such as Belgium and Italy, are only slightly better off, designated as experiencing high water stress.

Bahman Abbasi

“The second goal is to provide the best education possible for postdocs and students at all levels,” he said. “A large part of their education happens in the lab when they face a real-world problem.”

A Collaborative Effort

Abbasi found students who were collaborative, willing to learn, and motivated to help save lives around the globe. He and research associate Xiang (Shawn) Zhang then worked to create an environment and culture that inspires teamwork. In the large, open space of the Water and Energy Technologies Laboratory, small teams work together on the different components of the larger project.

Abbasi’s students and postdocs come from all over the world: China, India, Iran, Sudan, Nigeria, and the United States.

“I didn’t really look for diversity of ethnicity, gender, and creed,” he said. “It just organically materialized when I looked for the best people.”

In the center of the lab is a whiteboard where team members write inspirational sayings from any culture, not just their own. It is a representation of the respect they have for each other’s differences, which is central to the collaborative spirit that they apply to their work.

“We are all looking at the problem from different angles,” said Elnaz Nikooei, graduate student of mechanical engineering.

The team extends beyond Oregon State. Essential to the effort are experts at the University of Maryland, Michigan State University, and the University of Nevada, Reno, who are contributing knowledge
in areas such as additive manufacturing, chemistry, and heat exchangers.

Technology Breakthroughs

“In research, if everything goes as expected, it means you’re not pushing the envelope. We always encounter new things that we hadn’t foreseen,” Abbasi said. “But the good news is that we’ve overcome most of it.”

Abbasi’s vision for the desalination project was to develop a new technology that uses less energy than traditional, evaporative desalination, which requires powerful blowers and high-pressure pumps. Instead, his system humidifies and dehumidifies air so the salt can be extracted using less energy.

A critical component of the system is the thermal fan that can run on low-grade energy, such as solar power, and produce high-pressure air to vaporize the saltwater. That key piece, one of the first problems the team took on, has now been built and tested, and it is performing as Abbasi hoped. In addition to applying for a patent, he has spun it into another independent project.

The second component is a novel atomizer that addresses a problem of traditional systems, in which contaminated water can clog orifices.

“We changed that by designing a new atomizer that fills the top of a perforated plate with contaminated or saline liquid and blasts it from underneath with high-speed air jets. This way, we do not have any liquid that passes through an orifice. Instead, the air jets atomize and spray a sheet of liquid, which floats on top of the plate,” he said.

His lab has demonstrated the device can atomize water with the spray properties they want, including droplet size and air-to-water ratio. Another component is a cyclonic separator to produce potable water by removing salt from a humid air stream. The final component is a heat exchanger to recoup some of the energy that goes into the system.

“That will be critical for cost competitiveness and environmental sustainability,” Abbasi said.

Abbasi expects he can borrow the atomization and spray evaporation ideas from the desalination project and apply them to the system for cleaning fracking wastewater. The team has also developed a nozzle to suck in waste vapor and has demonstrated the ability to separate clean water from gaseous contaminants, such as benzene and toluene.

To recover water from the system, they have created an inline de-mister that uses a swirling motion to push mist to the walls of a cylinder, where it can be extracted.

“In over 100 different experiments with various parameters, we’ve shown that we can extract a little over 97% of the condensed water from the system with minimal contamination,” Abbasi said.

Abbasi has applied for patents for each of the two systems. There is also potential to combine the systems by simply chaining them — first desalinating, then removing contaminants — but Abbasi has bigger idea.

“We are thinking of something more integrated and sophisticated that merges the two technologies for a more efficient system. But it is not a trivial problem,” he said.

Of course, it would not be interesting to Abbasi if it were trivial.

Sept. 21, 2020

Funny robots lead to best paper award

A robot playing the piano.

Naomi Fitter, assistant professor of robotics, won the Best Paper Award at the 2020 Association for Computing Machinery/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction.

The paper, co-written with John Vilk, “Comedians in Cafes Getting Data: Evaluating Timing and Adaptivity in Real-World Robot Comedy Performance,” reported findings that may provide key clues for how social robots can best engage people with humor.

“Stand-up comedy provides a naturally-structured experimental context for initial studies of robot humor,” Fitter said. The study compared audience responses to a robotic stand-up comedian over multiple performances that varied the robot’s timing and how it adapted to its audience.

“The paper was fun to write, but also represents more than a year of data collection and analysis,” Fitter said.

The HRI conference is a highly selective conference, with an acceptance rate below 25%. Accordingly, getting a best paper award at this conference is a challenging feat.

“I am excited to received this award, which indicates my home research community’s interest in and enthusiasm for my research program,” said Fitter.

April 13, 2020

Fast Delivery

Logo reading Fast Delivery.


Where can you go with a degree in robotics from Oregon State University?

This past fall, two recent graduates who launched successful careers at Amazon Robotics returned to Corvallis to inspire current students with stories about life after grad school and to encourage them to maximize their experiences at Oregon State to achieve success in industry.

Eric Klinkhammer has been with the company since earning his master’s degree in robotics in 2018. He works on the software that controls robots in Amazon’s distribution centers and warehouses.

“All of the software that goes from the moment when you click on an order to the robot that actually packages and then delivers that item,” Klinkhammer said.

Logan Yliniemi earned a dual doctorate in robotics and mechanical engineering in 2015. After a two-year stint as an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, he joined Amazon Robotics as a research scientist in 2017.

“I like working on problems with ridiculously large scale,” Yliniemi said. “When you talk about large-scale problems, Amazon has some of the biggest in the world.”

Today, Amazon commands a virtual workforce of more than 200,000 robots throughout its network of distribution facilities, handling billions of packages a year.

Remote video URL
Eric Klinkhammer (’18 M.S., Robotics) works as a software engineer at Amazon Robotics. Amazon Robotics researches and develops the automation systems used throughout Amazon’s fulfillment centers.

“We’re talking about coordinating tons of robots to do what amounts to a robotic ballet to make sure that they are all constantly being productive and performing some kind of work that’s valuable to getting things out the door to the customer,” Yliniemi said.

Although this “ballet” is performed without an audience, the end results are appreciated by Amazon’s customers every day.

“Everything I do is ultimately going to be seen by my parents, by you — anyone opening up an Amazon package. My robots have touched those items,” Klinkhammer said. “They’ve maybe made those boxes, moved those things around. All of it has a very defined impact on people around the world.”

To the customer, all of the logistics managed by robots are completely invisible. Orders are simply delivered, as if by magic.

“There’s a lot that happens with the robots in the fulfillment center to make sure that we can get the right product in the right place at the right time to be able to fulfill the customer demands,” Yliniemi said.

Both alumni credit their experiences at Oregon State for having prepared them for such rigorous tasks.

“All the faculty here and the classes and the projects forced me to become better in all the ways that industry is looking for,” Klinkhammer said. “Being able to start work without having everything given to you, and work with others.”

Kagan Tumer, the professor of robotics who advised both Klinkhammer and Yliniemi as students, said their success highlights the strengths of the robotics program.

“They and other alumni are becoming leaders in key companies around the world and are great ambassadors for our program,” Tumer said.

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Logan Yliniemi (’15 Ph.D., Mechanical Engineering and Robotics) was one of the first students to receive a doctorate from Oregon State’s robotics program. Today, he is a research scientist working to increase productivity throughout Amazon’s network.

Although they graduated only a few years apart, Yliniemi said Klinkhammer benefited from one particular resource he lacked as a student.

“The space in Graf is unlike anything that we had,” Yliniemi said. “This open, sunlit space is a dream come true.”

Graf Hall, the 18,000-square-foot high-bay building that now houses the robotics program, was renovated in 2015 to create a shared, collaborative space for research. Its open plan, with no physical barriers separating research spaces, is designed to stimulate collaboration and interaction among students and faculty researchers.

Since that time, the program has grown to more than 25 faculty and 180 top-notch graduate students who conduct cutting-edge robotics research and applications. It is considered one of the top programs in the country.

The College of Engineering has also established the Collaborative Robotics and Intelligent Systems Institute, whose researchers work to advance the theory, design, development, and deployment of robots and intelligent systems.

“It goes to show how important robotics is likely to be over the course of the next 20 to 50 years, that Oregon State is making such an investment in in resources into the program,” Yliniemi said.

April 3, 2020
Associated Researcher
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