The Essential Interview: CMU’s Howie Choset on Robotics Collaboration

In the News
September 18, 2017

Joanne Pransky, associate editor of Industrial Robot, recently sat down with Dr. Howie Choset, a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University and chief technical officer at the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute.  Choset is perhaps best known for robotics collaboration to develop snake robots and other devices for use in healthcare and exploration.

Choset has B.S. degrees in engineering and economics from the University of Pennsylvania, and he obtained his master’s and Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and robotics from the California Institute of Technology.

Since 1996, Choset has been a professor of robotics at CMU and director of the CMU Biorobotics Lab. He is also director of CMU’s undergraduate major and minor of robotics.

Along with his students, Choset formed several companies including Medrobotics (2005) for surgical systems, Hebi Robotics (2014) for modular robots, and Bito Robotics (2017) for autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs). Medrobotics’ snake robots have received U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for colorectal and otolaryngology procedures.

This year, Choset co-led the formation of the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute, which is a $250 million national initiative for advancing technology development and education for robotics in manufacturing. Choset here discusses his interests in robotics collaboration and commercialization.

This interview is available free to Robotics Business Review readers until Oct. 31, 2017. Here’s a preview:

Pransky: What has been your most fun robotic project thus far, and why?

Choset: I really like collaborating with people, and it’s hard to say which collaboration is more fun than the other. I have wonderful collaborations with my students and even after they graduate, my students continue to teach me.

For example, I was just on the phone with Ross Hatton, who’s now a professor at Oregon State University, and he still supports me with the math that he figures out. I have another collaboration on medical robotics with Vanderbilt Professor Nabil Simaan, and while it’s very educational, we’ve become pretty good friends.

I have a similar professional and personal collaboration with Georgia Tech Professor Dan Goldman, who is a bounty of inspiration and great ideas.

I also enjoy going out in the field with the robots. One of my colleagues, Dr. Robin Murphy, has gotten me out in the field to do search and rescue training with a few of our robots, along with a few of my students. We’ve been in archaeological sites in Egypt with Kathryn Bard, nuclear power plants in Austria with Florian Enner, and demonstrated robots in museums with Kathleen McCarthy.

Then there’s the commercial side — I’ve started three companies with my students, and I love the fact that I get to stay with them a little bit longer as we’re now taking the research and making it into something that someone wants to buy.

Pransky: What has been your most commercially successful robotics collaboration or project?

Choset: I define commercial success as being able to sell enough products to generate revenue, to not only sustain an enterprise, but [also] to have profit. I started three companies, and none of those companies have reached that level yet.

That being said, I would hardly say any of the companies are failures. Medrobotics, for example, has cleared the FDA, operated on people, and received over $140 million in investment. The robots are being sold; we just need to sell a lot of robots to recover the initial investments.

Pransky: When applying your research to the real world, did you approach robotics collaborators in industry, or did they ask you to develop prototypes?

Choset: For Medrobotics, I had two other co-founders — Alon Wolf and Marco Zenati, a cardiac surgeon. The three of us started the company, and what really got us going was...

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