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Northwestern Engineering’s legacy in robotics started in the 1950s when Dick Hartenberg, a professor, and Jacques Denavit, a PhD student, developed a way to represent mathematically how mechanisms move.

At the time, there was no agreement on how to describe the kinematics — the geometry of motion — of mechanisms consisting of links (rigid bodies, like bones) and joints (parts that allow motion between rigid bodies, like a shoulder joint). The duo showed that the position of one link connected to another by a joint could be represented minimally using only four numbers, or “parameters.” These came to be known as the Denavit-Hartenberg parameters, the standard description of the kinematics of robots for decades to come.

Thirty years later, the field of robotics was focused on trying to develop fully autonomous robots. In 1989, Michael Peshkin, now professor of mechanical engineering, and Ed Colgate, now Breed Senior Professor of Design, joined their budding research labs to form the Laboratory for Intelligent Mechanical Systems (LIMS).

In the early 1990s, a grant from the General Motors Foundation prompted them to talk to GM assembly line workers. Though humans and robots shared the floor, robotic systems had to remain behind a fence for safety reasons, creating a mindset that robot jobs and human jobs were completely distinct — and seen as potential competition.

But by combining the strengths of people in intelligence, perception, and dexterity, with the strengths of robots in persistence, accuracy, and interface to computer systems, the researchers designed and built cobots — short for collaborative robots — that physically cooperate with workers to manipulate heavy items. The low-power robots helped guide the workers. When installing an automobile seat, for example, the worker initiated the motion and controlled the action while the cobot guided the seat to its exact position.

Robots became collaborators, not competitors.

Over the next two decades, as new faculty members joined and topics expanded to include neuromechanics and bio-inspired robotics, the faculty and research scope continued to grow. Faculty now have appointments in mechanical engineering, biomedical engineering, computer science, the Feinberg School of Medicine, and the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab.

With growing collaborations with the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab and an emphasis on human-interactive and biological systems, in 2012 LIMS became the Neuroscience and Robotics Lab (NxR).

In 2014, under the leadership of Professor Todd Murphey, the MS in Robotics program was launched, complementing the research efforts in NxR with professional robotics education.

Most recently, a major construction project added 4,000 square feet in the Technological Institute as NxR was retired and the Center for Robotics and Biosystems was launched, with Professor Kevin Lynch as its director.

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