Not everyone gets the chance to build life-changing robots. But with a dedicated team and intense workdays, Eric Meyhofer, principal commercialization specialist at the National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC) at Carnegie Mellon University, is transforming the way the world uses advanced humanoid robots.
Meyhofer is part of a team selected to compete in this year’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency competition, the DARPA Robotics Challenge, in which several teams create robots that can perform intricate work in environments dangerous for humans. DARPA commissions advanced research for the U.S. Department of Defense.
The innovative project, the CMU Highly Intelligent Mobile Platform, or “CHIMP,” is intended to assist humans in — and take over — key parts of search and rescue missions after natural and man-made disasters.
The human-sized CHIMP, which appears slightly simian, has the ability to grasp tools and complete intricate tasks such as driving bulldozers through recovery zones and drilling holes at disaster sites.
“Adapting to the environment was sort of the driving spirit of DARPA’s request, where a robot such as Baxter, an amazing accomplishment, is a low-cost arm and designed to fit a market and work near humans,” said Meyhofer. “Where we are going to utilize CHIMP, it is not safe for humans.”
The path that led him to his current CHIMP project started very early, even before he realized his career. “I’ve been in robotics for a long time. I learned how to solder when I was six years old, and mechanical engineering is what I always wanted to do,” said Meyhofer, who credits his father as his mentor.
After attending Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, where he studied mechanical engineering, Meyhofer started his own company, where he developed carbon fiber parts for race cars for about a year. “I got my first humility pill, and after that didn’t work out, I went to the San Francisco Bay Area and got into the semiconductor robotics scene when everything was just exploding out there,” he said.
For a short time, he kept his position as an engineer at a Bay Area start-up even after moving back to Pittsburgh to start a family. But he eventually decided that extensive traveling wasn’t for him. “For people starting their career in engineering, remote telecommuting doesn’t foster a lot of growth, and the social aspect — which is extremely important to development — was missing altogether,” he said.
Meyhofer started a new chapter in his life at NREC, where he performs advanced applied research and develops prototypes for both corporate and government sponsors. There, he conceived his proudest project: an 18-ton, six-wheeled vehicle called “Crusher,” which has the ability to travel over complex terrains.
“My first December here, I worked 240 hours, including the time off for the holidays,” he recalled. “You have to love the field. You don’t get into robotics, or at least, I don’t see people getting into robotics [leisurely]. It’s so hardcore, because it’s new and you’re inventing everything, and you’re driving the industry.”
Part of Meyhofer’s intensity is reflected in the development of CHIMP (pictured below), which is being propelled under a “trifecta of challenges,” including a tight schedule and budget and the intricate, technical undertaking of the project.
“If you look at CHIMP closely, you’ll see all of its joints,” he said. “We only had to design four different drive joints (with 200 parts per drive joint), but these drive joints are serious. They are extremely feature-rich and power-dense. We really have to push the limits of mechanical engineering here to package everything as tightly as possible, in addition to winding coils for brakes, burnishing friction surfaces, and creating planetary gear systems, among other things.”
“Overall, the projects here have been pretty amazing, to say the least.”
Meyhofer’s 3 Points of Advice for Aspiring Robotics Engineers:
1) Don’t get into robotics because you want to get rich. Do it because you love it: “I had a bunch of MBAs from CMU visit the other day, and they met with us to discuss commercializing some of our technology. They were so excited…and one of them made a comment, ‘We’ll, I’d really like to work here.’ But the side of the table I’m on is the side where the innovation is, versus where the money is, and that’s what students need to choose, because it’s not like you’re going to get both. There are cases in which robotics have exploded and people have gotten wealthy, but that’s not the norm. The norm is you’re going to work really hard and get see your ideas become real life.”
2) Be passionate about what you do: “At Carnegie Mellon, I have a lot of resumes come through and I interview a lot of folks and see a lot of candidates…and every resume is amazing. They are all great advanced degrees from grade school. The differentiator at the end of the day is the person. It’s the work ethic. It’s the passion. Are they on fire? Have they been doing this their entire life? One of my interview questions is, ‘How old were you when you learned how to solder? How long have you been passionate about this? Were you doing this because you were getting blown around in the wind…and you ended up in mechanical engineering and you think robotics is cool?’ ”
3) Don’t be afraid of failure in the field: “Out of all of the things that we are doing, the chances are you’re going to fail, and you can’t be afraid of that. We break so many things, and we fail so often, but we like to fail quickly and get it out of the way, and document it.”
For more on the creation of “CHIMP,” see the Carnegie Mellon press release here.