University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Here Come the Robots

A peek inside the U's new Gemini-Huntley Robotics Research Laboratory

Photo by Eric Miller

In the future, robots will serve as eyes in the sky for farmers, surveying fields to help increase crop yields; they will undertake hazardous missions such as exploring ocean bottoms; and they will communicate with humans, diagnosing illnesses or simply keeping us company.

The future seems close at hand inside the Gemini-Huntley Robotics Research Laboratory, a new University of Minnesota facility dedicated to pushing the boundaries of knowledge in one of the hottest fields in high tech. The $13 million complex of nine labs and flexible work space for faculty and students doing robotics research opened last November in the Shepherd Laboratories building on the East Bank in Minneapolis. The Lab was funded primarily by private donations, with an additional $2 million in state funding coming through the U’s MnDRIVE initiative.

Last year, the University ranked fifth nationally in robotics research, according to CSRankings, which tracks the performance of computer science institutions based on the number of publications by faculty. The lab is expected to further enhance the U’s standing in the field by fostering collaboration and providing access to the latest robotics research technologies and tools.

On any given day a heady mix of research goes on in the facility, a two-story honeycomb of glass-walled labs, conference rooms, and open areas for spontaneous brainstorming.

A team led by Professor Nikolaos Papanikolopoulos, director of the U’s Center for Distributed Robotics, is experimenting with a solar-powered “transformer” drone that can both fly like an airplane and hover like a helicopter, the better to conduct surveys of agricultural lands. Nearby, in the Interactive Robotics and Vision Lab, computer science Assistant Professor Junaed Sattar and six students are researching computer vision with a camera-equipped amphibious robot that can “see” underwater objects and create real-time maps of lake and sea bottoms.

Other research projects involve developing drones that can flit from tree to tree in apple orchards, gathering data on the size and health of the coming harvest; using high-resolution cameras to capture distinctly human behavior such as gestures and facial expressions; and working with pint-sized humanoid robots that interact with young children—potentially helping to spot early signs of autism.

By bringing together robotics researchers under one roof, the lab has galvanized inquiring minds working in diverse fields like computer science, mechanical engineering, data analytics, and artificial intelligence. Sattar says he can feel the buzz; since moving into the lab, he’s had more conversations with faculty and students from other departments, and students come to him every day with new research proposals. “There’s a general sense of enthusiasm,” he says. “People are more energized, more active, more collaborative; all of those good things are happening.”

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