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Animating the Inanimate

One day, advanced robots and humanoids may step in for people, navigating dangerous and life-threatening situations to help save countless lives.

Ohio State alumnus Patrick Wensing has found himself at the forefront of this research. After graduating from the electrical and computer engineering PhD program in 2014, he went on to apply this education as a postdoctoral researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Biomimetic Robotics Lab.

Wensing is now using the control system design methods he learned while studying humanoid robotics under Ohio State professor David Orin, and is applying them to realms such as robotic perception, sensing and mechanical design. 

“I have been working with the MIT Cheetah 2, a 70-pound quadruped robot, in the Biomimetic Robotics Lab,” Wensing said. “The robot is one of a kind, with custom-built DC electric actuators that have enabled me to transfer some of the control design principles from my PhD to this unique machine.”

By applying some of Wensing’s model-predictive control designs, the MIT Cheetah robot is now capable of jumping over obstacles. 

In one MIT video, Wensing throws a pink block in the way of the robot as it runs on a treadmill. The machine hurdles it easily. He jots down a note on a clipboard. The smile on his face says it all. 

“It’s been a rewarding experience, and has led to some exciting new results,” he said. “Longer term, I’d like to see these legged robots replace humans in dangerous situations, such as in fire rescue or disaster response. With a growing set of systems science applied to these machines, there’s an exciting opportunity to have a positive impact toward achieving these goals in the coming years.”

Looking back, Wensing said, his years at Ohio State ECE were formative. 

“Ohio State provided an incredibly supportive environment for me to grow, both personally and as an independent researcher,” he said.

The undergraduate curriculum provided a foundation of strong technical skills, he said, while Orin gave him the drive to continue his efforts through graduate school. 

From the Ohio State marching band, to the FIRST Robotics program and other club sports, Wensing said Ohio State provided opportunities for him to grow as an individual. 

“Graduate school in the department provided the freedom to immerse myself in robotics and shape my own views on the field. I am grateful to have had support from many faculty members along the way to develop and pursue my personal goals,” he said. “This support helped me find a great deal of enjoyment in robotics research and showed me the potential for a fulfilling career in academia.”

Orin said Wensing wasn’t just a typical student. He was the top undergraduate at Ohio State in June 2009 when he received his BS degree. He had a perfect 4.0 GPA, which he carried through graduate school as well.

What is it about robotics that continues to fascinate Wensing more than the other scientific disciplines? Curiosity. Being able to use robotics as an excuse to explore other technical realms. 

“Being a roboticist means I get to come into work and pursue problems across control, computer science and mechanical design,” he said. “And I get to tackle these problems as a hands-on engineer, with machines that come to life.”

Animating the inanimate, he said, captured his mind from the start.

“Robots in motion have an intrinsic allure, and I think this draw has been used to great effect in attracting and retaining students in engineering,” Wensing said. “I was one of those students, and I suppose I have been having too much fun to change focus since.”