Notre Dame Robotics featured in new James Patterson book ‘House of Robots’

Author: William G. Gilroy

Prolific bestselling author James Patterson releases a new children’s book today (Nov. 24) and it has a distinct University of Notre Dame feel.

House of Robots, co-written by Patterson and Chris Grabenstein, takes place in South Bend and features illustrations from the University’s annual National Robotics Week event and robotic football tournament. It tells the story of a boy whose college professor mother invents robots, and what happens when one of those robots decides to enroll in school with his flesh-and-blood “brother.”

While robot siblings may be fictional, cutting edge research at Notre Dame is bringing us closer to the day that robots can serve as teammates and helpers in complex human environments. In combination with the University’s robotics outreach programs, this makes Notre Dame an apt setting for a book that aims to get students interested in robotics and STEM.

Laurel Riek, Clare Booth Luce Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, does research with the goal of creating robotics technology that can automatically sense, understand and respond to human behavior. “The purpose behind this is to make new things possible for the humans in the loop: for instance, to save lives by improving patient safety; to give an aging population the independence they need to continue living where and as they please; and to enable people with disabilities,” Riek said.

“Personal robots that work side-by-side with people are forecasted to be the next big technological revolution,” Riek said. “We are slowly seeing them entering our lives: aiding people with disabilities and older adults, performing onerous chores, and soon transporting us from place to place. However, there remains a gap between intelligent systems that work in the lab, and the reality of building systems that work for real people in the real world. We are working to bridge this gap, particularly in the areas of social sensing and behavior synthesis. We are creating robots that can automatically understand what people are doing, and use that understanding to work more effectively with people across all kinds of different settings.”

On a project funded by a National Science Foundation Early CAREER award, Riek is improving the state of the art for the most-used category of android robots in the world today: human-patient simulators. These robots are an important tool for training clinicians, but current systems are missing a key feature: Despite the critical importance of facial cues in diagnosis and effective communication, none of the commercially available simulators have expressive faces.

Riek’s work involves designing new kinds of high-fidelity robotic patient stimulator systems that can express patient signals of pain, stroke and neurological impairment. “This work will enable hundreds of thousands of doctors, nurses, EMTs, firefighters, and combat medics to practice their treatment and diagnostic skills extensively and safely on robots before treating real patients,” she said.

On another project, Riek and her students are deploying novel sensing systems in hospitals to study how teams of clinicians work together and model when and how medical errors occur. They hope that one day this technology will enable healthcare teams to intervene when an error happens.

Riek, who was recently named one of the American Society for Engineering Education’s (ASEE) 20 Faculty Under 40, has also been instrumental in developing and enhancing robotics courses. She designed a new course at Notre Dame called “Autonomous Mobile Robots,” which she has taught for the past four years. It is a joint upper-level undergraduate / graduate class that features a hands-on approach to learning.

“The course focuses on computational problems in robotics related to sensing, control and planning,” she said. “Students also explore contemporary topics in the field, such as healthcare robotics, social robotics and driverless cars. The course capitalizes on the physical nature of robotics engineering by including a series of weekly, group-based lab assignments that use the Turtlebot robot, an open hardware, open software platform. Students also gain experience using the Robot Operating System (ROS), which is the industry standard for robotics system development.”

An innovative aspect of the course is a capstone project that students design, develop and manage entirely themselves, culminating in a major demonstration at Notre Dame’s annual National Robotics Week (NRW), a K-12 outreach event that Riek founded in 2012. National Robotics Week celebrates robotics technology development while educating the public about the many ways in which robotics technology impacts society, while encouraging students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) related fields. 2014 will be Notre Dame’s fourth annual event.

Riek founded the NRW event in 2012 and has been running it annually. Her purpose of starting the event was twofold: “First, to showcase my students’ class projects and graduate students’ research, as well as the other incredible robotics work happening across the Colleges of Engineering, Science, Arts and Letters, and Robinson Community Learning Center. Second, to reach out to K-12 students and their families in the community. Most people have never seen an autonomous robot before in real life, so we wanted to create an interactive, fun experience for them.” To date the event has had over 600 people attend annually from the Michiana community, and has had over 240 students, faculty, and staff exhibit their robotics projects.

From her own experience, Riek knows that books about science and technology can have a formative impact on young readers.

“I grew up reading science fiction and adventure novels, authors such as William Sleator, Harriet Adams, and Issac Asimov,” she said. “When I was 15 I had a job at the local library in my town. During breaks, I would sit in the stacks and read. My town’s library was amazing – it had classic AI books by Roger Penrose and Marvin Minsky, and pop science CS books by Steven Levy. I devoured them. I would come home from work and sit down with a notebook, designing algorithms for intelligent systems. I also loved programming; it just made so much sense to me. In retrospect, it never even occurred to me I could do anything else other than become a computer scientist.”

Patterson’s new book also calls attention to Notre Dame’s annual Blue Gold mechatronic football game.

Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering professors Michael Stanisic and Jim Schemedieler developed the robotic football concept. The event has grown from a classroom requirement into a robotics conference via the Mechatronic Football Club at Notre Dame and now features other universities, including IPFW, IUPUI and Ohio Northern University. In addition, the effort at Notre Dame has expanded from a senior capstone project to include undergraduate classes within the Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering.

Each team designs and builds robots — including linemen, running backs, wide receivers, quarterbacks and kickers — who compete for the Brian Hederman Memorial Robotic Competition Award. Hederman was a Notre Dame student who suffered an untimely death after his freshman year in 1995. The award and the competition itself were inspired by a drawing he left behind.

Equipped with sensors that flash different colors when the mechatronic players are hit, tackled or injured, the robots are roughly the size of desktop printers. Every year the teams incorporate upgrades into their “players.” Among the achievements coming from these upgrades was the first completed football pass achieved by robots, which occurred in a 2012 game. During the 2013 game between Notre Dame and Ohio Northern, five passes were completed.

The game itself consists of two 15-minute halves and a 10-minute halftime. The rules of the game are those for eight-man football, modified for mechanical play.

Despite the air of a sporting event, the game is actually a display of the accumulated knowledge of sophisticated engineering concepts. The technical challenges of designing and building the robot football players deepen students’ understanding of and ability to implement engineering principles. The participants will use the skills they acquired during the project in their careers as engineers, applying the same principles to develop, among other things, intelligent prostheses, biomedical devices and electromechanical systems in general.

Contact: Laurel Riek, 574-631-8380,