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UCSD aims for lead in field with proposed robotics institute

October forum to forge partnerships

San Diego has made a big push in the past few months to brand itself the center of the rapidly expanding drone industry. With many companies already in the field and a call for the FAA to designate the region an unmanned aerial vehicle center of excellence, it’s not a hard sell.

But what are drones except flying robots? The University of California San Diego and several local companies in the robotics field want to expand the region’s reputation as not only the hub of UAVs, but of the creation and manufacturing of robotics in general.

“I think the time is now to think extremely more broadly about robots,” said Albert Pisano, dean of the UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering, which is creating an Institute for Contextual Robotics to capitalize on what a coalition of 60 faculty and staff see as a weak spot in robotics, an area where San Diego can shine.

“[Robots are] coming, and they’re not just going to fold the laundry for you — we’re talking about major innovative repairs of things.”

That weak spot is the second of the three C’s of robotics —communication, context and contact.

“We focused on that C — context — because if that robot does not understand its environment, it is not useful to you,” Pisano said at a recent CommNexus panel.

“We don’t see the middle C [executed] to the max, so we are picking that direction. And we’re not doing it just as engineers; we’re doing it as engineers connected with [computer science] and the social sciences — this is a broad approach.”

The Jacobs School will host a forum on contextual robotics Oct. 10 to forge partnerships with leaders in the area, and get a better understanding for how the Institute should function within the community.

“We are in both a listening phase and a capacity-building phase for UC San Diego’s proposed Institute for Contextual Robotics Systems,” Pisano said in a statement.

“The Oct. 10 robotics forum is part of our effort to reach out to San Diego’s growing robotics community during the listening phase. We have not yet set a specific launch date for the Institute, but are working to identify one as soon as possible.”

In addition to the robotics institute, Thomas Bewley, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at UCSD, said the school is “working toward making the presence of robotics even stronger … with some sort of master’s of advanced studies ... for professional students.”

On the nonacademic side of things, San Diego has a lot of talent and companies already working in robotics. Brain Corp. is developing a brain for the machines to be able to learn on their own, similar to the concept behind Qualcomm’s (Nasdaq: QCOM) Zeroth processor.

“We want more autonomous robots, right?” said Eugene Izhikevich, co-founder and CEO of Brain Corp. “This is the promise of the last century. There’s so many dull, dangerous and dirty jobs that autonomous robots should be doing for us, but why aren’t they here?”

Izhikevich said the problem is in software, not hardware, as it would take tens of millions of hours and huge teams of engineers working for years to write the code to make a single robot able to function in relation to its environment.

“We at Brain Corp. asked the question ‘What if robots had a brain?’ Like animals, can you train them, instead of programming them?” Izhikevich asked.

The company, which is backed in part by venture funding from Qualcomm and makes use of UCSD talent, has developed BrainOS, an operating system for robots that allows the machines to be trained and learn like an animal.

Izhikevich demonstrated the system’s visual functions that enable a robot to visually follow a set object — say, a remote-controlled car — and stay focused on that object even with obstacles such as light poles or distracters such as an identical object.

The San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp. has taken note. President Mark Cafferty said the EDC promotes the region as a center of excellence for robotics in general — not just drones — and said local universities are key to keeping San Diego at the forefront of this evolving industry.

“I think the universities would probably tell you, and I think the industry would echo it, that we want to be seen as the center for excellence for robotics because that’s really what’s behind all of it,” Cafferty said.

“I would not underemphasize how important the universities are to that. And I think people may think so is the military — and it certainly is where the industry started ... but going forward, this is a big, big university play, and I think the fact that we have such strong engineering schools here, we’ve got to lead better with that internationally. That’s what’s going to draw in the talent that will keep powering that industry in some huge ways.”

Local drone-related companies recognize the benefits of having advances in general robotics coming out of San Diego. Tim McConnell, director of engineering for 3D Robotics, said he sees San Diego as the future for much more than just his company’s variety of robots.

“The future of robotics in San Diego is also here — [Pisano’s] got a great team of young people coming up in the robotic space. …You’re going to see robots becoming more and more capable, lots of things happening in the future and I really want us to be leading that space here in San Diego and Tijuana. The possibilities for innovation and growth are just huge,” McConnell said.

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