The Robotics Project Celebrates Field Robotics at 40

Sarah BenderMonday, December 11, 2023

William "Red" Whittaker, faculty emeritus and founding director of the Field Robotics Center, speaks to a group of alumni about the blue sensor beside him.

Earlier this fall, former faculty, staff and students gathered at Carnegie Mellon University to remember their time at the Field Robotics Center (FRC) during "The Robotics Project Celebrates Field Robotics at 40," part of the FRC's 40th anniversary celebration. 

The Robotics Project, a partnership between the University Libraries and the School of Computer Science, aims to preserve the past, present and future of robotics. The project captures a wide breadth of stories about the research, impact and experiences of the robotics community at CMU and around the world by preserving collections and sharing them through educational and public programming. Field robotics — using mobile robots in environments like work sites and natural terrain — is an important piece of that history.

SCS alums came out to support the event and included Kevin Dowling (MCS 1983; SCS 1994, 1997), who noted that by some accounts he was the Robotics Institute's first employee because faculty in the institute's early days were all affiliated with other departments. Alex Foessel (SCS 2002), who came to CMU to pursue a Ph.D. in robotics in 1996, also attended. Growing up on a ranch in Chile, he developed an interest in agriculture automation that led to an early career at John Deere and his current role as managing partner at Balanced Engineering. But at CMU, one of Foessel's biggest projects was an expedition to Antarctica to search for meteorites.

Dowling and Foessel joined their former colleagues, peers and professors to reminisce and view artifacts from the University Archives that ran the gamut from group photos to robotic arms.

"Without the storage of artifacts and the collection of stories, the true and complete history of the Robotics Institute and the FRC will be lost," Dowling said. "Saving original academic papers would be a simple way to say we have done our job, but this is not enough — it's the stories of the people involved, the failures and the successes. Getting to know the personalities of those involved tells an even greater story of the Robotics Institute and why it has been so successful." 

Read the full story on the University Libraries website.

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