In recent years, Berkeley has become a hotbed of robotic activity, to the point where there’s a virtual subculture across many disciplines, involving faculty, alumni, grad students, undergrads, and postdocs in a broad variety of powerhouse labs and research groups and projects. They have explored and devised, among many other things,

  • Unmanned rotorcraft
  • Autonomous collision avoidance
  • Heterogeneous sensor webs for automated target recognition and tracking
  • Computer recognition of human motions and gestures
  • Surgical tele-operation
  • Miniature ‘bots that mimic animal locomotion, sensing, and far more.

This last category has produced “creatures” that have captured the public imagination, among them a micromechanical flying insect (nicknamed Robofly) and a mechanical lizard (Mecho-Gecko) that walks and climbs using tiny hairs on its “feet,” as geckos do (and dry-adhesive products that use this technology are on their way to market). Partnerships with researchers at other institutions have produced the crab-walking Ariel (which might one day locate explosive mines in the surf zone); plus RHex, the Robot Hexapod (the most maneuverable robot ever built); and the six-legged SPRAWL family, modeled on the cockroach.

A larger fun-to-watch utilitarian automaton joined the roster this year, a towel-folding robot. It’s very good at what it does, swift, and even fastidious (after folding, it smooths). The creation of a team led by doctoral student Jeremy Maitin-Shepard and Assistant Professor Pieter Abbeel (both of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences), the robot represents a solution to a longstanding problem. While previous generations have been able to perform myriad tasks (like assembling cars) with mind-boggling precision and repeatability, they haven’t been able to manipulate flexible objects with shapes they can’t predict — like a pile of assorted towels. Tackling the problem, the Berkeley team (which included two undergrads, Marco Cusumano-Towner, a junior in EECS, and Jinna Lei, a senior math major), developed an algorithm and a new computer vision-based approach that allowed a robot built by Willow Garage, a robotics company in Menlo Park, to face a heap of towels of different sizes, colors, and materials and carefully assess, fold, and smooth each towel, neatly stacking as it goes. In the 50 trials the team used for their paper, the robot succeeded every time.

You probably wouldn’t want this robot to try diapering your baby, but there will be many tasks in manufacturing and other fields that robots with these new capabilities will be able to take up with ease.

Another side of the robotic coin is Nemo Gould, an Oakland artist and sculptor who earned his M.F.A. from Berkeley in 2000. Much of his work whimsically combines found objects of aluminum and wood into robot-like and science-fiction creatures of as-yet-unnamed and threatening species. Self-defined as more of a craftsman than an artist, after leaving school Gould apprenticed himself to a series of craftsmen who worked on motorcycles, cars, and cabinets, and gained a new series of skills that dovetailed nicely with his ”real steady habit” since childhood to “dismantle everything with moving parts.” His acquired engineering knowledge has helped him reassemble other people’s castoffs in new configurations without being electrocuted or catching fire. (“With electricity and moving parts you can definitely go wrong.”)

Self-described “largest Jawa” Nemo Gould (left) and “The Beholder” (right).

Gould’ s kinetic creations could define the word eclectic. One, called “Under the Sea,” is made up of a vintage TV cabinet and sewing machine cover, with a clock, a preserved squid, a water valve, a runner’s trophy, change-sorter, a tobacco pipe, a sound-recording module, and LED’s. You can interact, sort of, with his retro War-of-the-Worlds-ish robot “The Beholder.” Turning the knob on his chest winds a motor in his belly which activates an LED and a ticking sound that accompanies the slow side-to-side sweep of his single eye. Gould’s creations have been on exhibit in galleries, museums, store windows, and fairgrounds in California and the Midwest. In an interview with the Australia-based show “Planet Nerd,” he was asked the inevitable question: “Star Wars or Star Trek?” He picked Star Wars, “definitely.” And revealed that he has long identified with the Jawa in that movie series, an industrious cloak-wearing diminutive race of scavengers and tinkers who are not held in universally high repute on their desert planet. (“My shop looks quite a bit like their salvage ship.”) Lacking any programming chops, Gould keeps his work low-tech (“I’m a nuts-and-bolts kind of guy.”) Largely an outcast from the orthodox art community, he nonetheless is able to make a living from his art: “I take silly very seriously.”

— by Dick Cortén (originally published in eGrad, April 2010)