20 Colleges with Really Cool Robots on Campus

by Staff Writers

It’s not looking like we will have humanoid replicants running around by the year 2019. Heck, we won’t even have Back to the Future hoverboards by then. But progress is being made slowly and surely at colleges around the country to edge us closer to our next technology leap. These 20 campuses house some of the coolest droids and C-3POs in the country.

  1. Worcester Polytechnic Institute: WPI was the first school in the country to offer an undergraduate major in robotics, and there’s always cool stuff to be found on its campus in Massachusetts. Case in point: the Moonraker, an excavation tool for the moon that won a $500,000 prize from NASA in 2009.
  2. MIT: The humanoid robotics group at MIT is home to cool iron men like Coco, a boxy little guy who looks like a smaller version of Johnny Five, and Cog, a tall robot that can move his head and arms and will soon be able to hear and touch.
  3. Carnegie Mellon University: The Robotics Institute at CMU in Pittsburgh, Penn., crafted Finch, a wheeled robot shaped like a little white bird, to make computer science class a bit more entertaining. Finch can say "hello, world," dance, glow, draw pictures, and more. The bot’s developers hope to make it affordable enough for every CMU student to have one, meaning this campus that is already brimming with robots will be overrun by them.
  4. Stanford: If you see a VW Passat cruising the streets of Stanford, Calif., with no one behind the wheel, you should call the school and tell them Junior has gotten out. The robot car uses rotating laser scanners to survey its environment 10 times each second and decides for itself how to proceed along a preprogrammed route.
  5. Lake Superior State University: The Robotics and Automation Laboratory at LSSU’s School of Engineering and Technology in Michigan boasts 15 industrial robots. One of the coolest is newcomer Motoman, which can solve Rubik’s cubes after taking two photos of them. There is also a robot called Adept, which is an arm that can pick up a flashlight, install batteries in it, test it for functionality, then sort it by working and not working.
  6. California Institute of Technology: In late 2009, scientists at Caltech came up with CYCLOPS, a mobile robotic platform designed to simulate what a blind person with an implant like a retinal prosthesis would experience. The wheeled robot is equipped with a camera (just like an implant) the scientists want to test as a way to objectively study the prosthesis without requiring a human test subject.
  7. Olin College: The Senior Capstone Program in Engineering (SCOPE) at Olin College has been responsible for a number of cool inventions over the years. In 2005, students built a robotic tractor as a low-cost, efficient agricultural tool. Currently SCOPE members are working on projects like an autonomous crop sprayer and unmanned ground vehicles for the U.S. Army.
  8. Cornell University: Researchers are making advances in machine learning at Cornell’s Personal Robotics Lab. Specifically, robots in Cornell’s lab learn to load dishwashers, a task many human males struggle with. It’s complicated for a robot because it must gauge the size and shape of an object it has picked up and find a suitably-sized empty spot to set the object in.
  9. Georgia Institute of Technology: We may one day look back on Georgia Tech as the place our war with robots started. In 2010, engineers at the school programmed robots with the ability to deceive humans or other robots. More recently, researchers have designed tiny rovers that can map out an area by wheeling around autonomously and communicating with each other.
  10. Northeastern University: Robotic hand rehabilitation system with interactive gaming. Low-cost smart glove for virtual reality based rehabilitation. Bio-nano-robotic systems. These are the kinds of awesome titles of projects tossed around at Northeastern. NU researchers are also teaming up with folks at MIT to bring language learning education to preschoolers by means of talking robotic plush dragons. Now there’s a phrase you don’t see every day.

  1. Oregon State University: The Ducks are tackling difficulties faced by today’s robots like torque limits and seeing how fast and how tough they can make them. At their Dynamic Robotics Laboratory you’ll find robots that walk and run, defuse bombs, act as prosthetic limbs, and catch balls in the air. Their goal is to make the robots as agile as their creators.
  2. Kettering University: Kettering is the site of the FIRST Robotics Competition. Once a year around 40 teams of high school students come to campus to pit the robots they built out of the assigned parts against the robots from other teams. Last year’s contest required the robots to quickly retrieve inflatable donuts and hang them on posts.
  3. University of Southern California: USC collects robots like they’re going out of style. A jumping monopod, legged walkers, and a robot hand have all made appearances in the school’s robotics research lab. They also have a small fleet of autonomous helicopters, Tonka truck-esque Pioneer robots, and Sony Aibo dogs.
  4. Ohio State University: At The OSU Medical Center you’ll find 25 doctors on the leading edge of the use of robotics in knee replacements. Through the use of a robotic arm that provides real-time visual and haptic feedback, surgeons are able to make the best joint manipulation possible.
  5. University of Michigan: Researchers at Michigan are also making progress in the field of unmanned ground vehicles. The engineering school developed the OmniTread, an inchworm-like ground robot to be used in search and rescue to dig through debris. UM students recently won the Multi Autonomous Ground-robotic International Challenge with their team of 14 autonomous ground-mapping robots.
  6. University of North Carolina: The surgeons at the CARES Center at UNC-Chapel Hill have access to one of the coolest pieces of robotic technology used in medicine. From a console, a doctor controls the four arms of the da Vinci surgical system to perform operations in cardiology, pediatrics, urology, and more. In 2010, doctors used the machine to remove a tumor from a teenage girl in the first such operation on a child in the state.
  7. South Dakota School of Mines and Technology: At this year’s International Aerial Robotics Competition in Puerto Rico, the SDSMT Hardrockers will be entering their unmanned aerial vehicle. This robotic helicopter will carry another, smaller helicopter designed by the team called SERV (Structure Entry and Reconnaissance Vehicle) to a target and deploy it. The school has been fielding a team in the competition since 2004.
  8. Embry-Riddle Aeronautics University: In 2008, ERAU produced the award-winning "Medusa," an underwater robot designed for deep-sea search and rescue. More recently, students completed work on their entry for NASA’s Lunabotics Challenge — a small robot that looks like a golf cart with rototiller arms. This is also the school building an NHRA dragster powered by a jet engine.
  9. University of Washington: U-Dub is awash with labs studying what they call "robotics, controls, and mechatronics" (we love that word). The Biorobotics Lab works with haptic interfaces like their multi-fingered haptic display. The Robotics, Automation, and Control Labs work on projects like a two-armed surgical robot attached to a rubber torso to be used in surgery.
  10. Purdue University: Purdue’s Art Lab (Assistive Robotics Technology) focuses on skill learning for robots to assist humans in a variety of ways. They have worked with robots to enable them to detect faces and recognize emotions, and to walk, grab, and throw. The school is also partnering with Korean researchers to create a firefighting robot that would relay hotspots and the locations of fire victims to the controller.