Robotics research and majors at Olin College of Engineering

olin_robot_1.jpg More and more colleges and universities are jumping on the robotics bandwagon, and Olin College of Engineering is doing its best to fight its way to the front. Olin, my alma mater, is a small undergraduate-only, innovative, young engineering school focused on project-based engineeering education, located near Boston, Massachusetts. And as several of the professors have realized, robotics projects are one of the best ways to provide hands-on design opportunities for mechanical, electrical, and software engineers alike. Olin has started up a thriving undergraduate research program in field and biomimetic robotics and some enterprising students have designed a robotics engineering curriculum to strengthen their education as roboticists. Read on after the jump for more information on the cool robots to be found in Olin's halls.

The Curriculum

Olin College has three majors: electrical and computer engineering, mechanical engineering, and general engineering. While both ECE and ME majors can be a path to the robotics industry -- I'm an ECE myself -- students can choose to concentrate within the general engineering degree. There are tracks for Engineering with a Computing concentration (similar to software engineering), Engineering with a Systems concentration (systems engineers are often well-suited to building robots), and lately, Engineering with a Robotics concentration. The Robotics concentration blends coursework in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and software engineering, along with an upper-level elective designed to get students an in-depth look at robotics. In the course, outside speakers are occasionally invited in to inform students of the latest happenings in industry and academia that are driving robotics research and development. The students spend two weeks at each of various modules -- computer vision, for example, and control systems -- then move on to a large final project throughout the second half of the semester. Later, throughout their senior year at Olin, students can choose one of the industry-sponsored capstone (SCOPE) projects that focuses on engineering; in the past, robotics projects have been sponsored by Draper Laboratory, John Deere, ROCONA, Vision Robotics, SAIC, and Boston Engineering. One SCOPE project was also a part of an entry into the DARPA Urban Challenge.

The Intelligent Vehicles Laboratory

The IVL is focused on field robotics. These robots are usually big, powerful, and sponsored by industry. Olin students and professors have been working on underwater robots, ocean surface robots, apple-picking robots, crop-spraying robots, tractor vision systems, and autonomous cars. The crop-spraying robot, for a company called ROCONA in California, is already in active use. Olin students built the electromechanical systems on MIT's DARPA Urban Challenge vehicle, which placed fourth in the final competition.

This shows a test of one of the early robotic snakes built to study the "gaits" that snakes use to move.

The Biomimetic Robotics Laboratory

Biomimetic: imitating nature. I'm pretty confident that the Biomimetic lab exists solely because professor Gill Pratt wanted a place to house his python (named Monty, of course). Regardless of how it was started, though, Monty inspired several models of robotic snakes, and the bio-inspired research has now expanded to bluefin tuna fish. Professor Pratt has also built a pair of robotic legs -- called M2 -- as part of a research project that spun out of MIT's Leg Lab.

Olin is a purely undergraduate institution, not a research university, so the amount of research (and number of grad students) is drastically different from what you might find at MIT or Stanford. However, every student working on robots and interacting with professors at Olin is an undergraduate, which is a truly unique opportunity you don't find at many schools. I'm personally impressed with the success and variety of research programs the professors have gotten running in just a few short years -- Olin has only been open since 2002, and when I graduated in 2006 there were only a handful of mostly non-working robots sitting and standing in a single classroom.



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