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From shapeshifting boats to bionic flowers: MIT’s Daniela Rus is paving the road less traveled

Daniela Rus is in the news—a lot. In September, she was named the winner of the MassTLC Innovation Catalyst Award, an honor bestowed on individuals who are making an “exceptional impact on the Massachusetts technology ecosystem.” (She will be recognized at a celebration at Fenway Park on November 6.) Last week, she was selected to serve on the Board of Trustees of the Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence (MBZUAI)—the first graduate-level, research-based AI university in the world, based in Abu Dhabi. Other esteemed board members include the top AI experts from around the world.

Impressive? Definitely. But the accolades don’t stop there. In the past 18 months alone, Daniela has also been honored with the Constellation Research Award, named to the Business Transformation 150, received the Pioneer in Robotics and Automation Award from the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society for her “pioneering work in the science and design of distributed and self-configuring robotic systems,” and received the Woman in STEM Award from Wheaton College. Clearly, being in the spotlight is something Daniela Rus is accustomed to—and for good reason. As one of today’s most accomplished AI researchers, she and her team at MIT have earned a global reputation for changing the world as we know it through robotics and AI.

If that sounds like an exaggeration worthy of a JK Rowling novel, consider this: every day at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), Daniela and her team are discovering new ways to apply the power of robotics, artificial intelligence, neural networking, and machine vision to work to solve everyday challenges. Here’s just a peek at some of their latest accomplishments:

  • Shapeshifting boats that can clean Amsterdam’s canals—and more.
    The amount of trash and plastic in Amsterdam’s famous canals has reached epic proportions. The problem is so extreme that it has become one of the city’s most famous tourist attractions. Plastic Whale cruises armed more than 12,000 visitors last year with fishing rods and gloves to take part in one mission: to fish for plastic. But while eco-tourism can help, Daniela and her team have developed a solution designed to help keep the canals clean 24/7—no tourists required.Using “roboats,” robotic boats that have the ability to change shape by autonomously reconfiguring to form floating structures, they are using a combination of robotic cameras and sensors, GPS, and complex hardware to navigate and help maintain the city’s maze of 165 winding canals. Ultimately, the goal is to use roboats to do much more than collect trash. At IEEE’s International Symposium on Multi-Robot and Multi-Agent Systems, Daniela and her team presented a new paper sharing the latest enhancements to MIT’s roboat fleet and the vision for the future. Daniela shared how the boats can come together to form structures that can help transport materials or people from one side of a canal to the other to help reduce traffic on city streets, and even reconfigure into bridges, stages, and platforms on-demand.And shapeshifters are by no means limited to plastic-clogged waterways. The team at MIT is also exploring ways to apply similar technologies to empower tiny, configurable robots that are squished into an ingestible robotic pill. “We imagine robots like this could become mini surgeons,” says Daniela. “It’s an application that has the potential to create a future vision of surgery—with no incisions, no pain, and no risk of infections.” (Changing the world, indeed!)
  • Bionic flowers that can lift 100 times their own weight.
    Every grocery shopper has watched in vain as their fragile fruits and vegetables are bruised and beaten by a less-than-diligent cashier at the market. On a grander scale, keeping goods safe from harm is a challenge grocery distributors face every day as warehouse workers pick and pack everything from tomatoes to televisions to send to consumers—undamaged. And though companies like Amazon and Ocado have made great strides in using robotics to accelerate delivery speeds, traditional robot grippers made out of metal and hard plastic have their limits when it comes to handling more fragile goods.Daniela and her team have developed a solution that could be the key to erasing those limitations once and for all. Their Origami Robot Gripper—which looks like a large flower—uses a vacuum to close a soft plastic gripper around each object to oh-so-gently transport it from one place to another. And the flower-shaped gripper isn’t just for groceries; it can lift more than 100 times its weight, making it an ideal tool for picking and packing a wide variety of items in warehouses around the world.
  • Self-driving cars that learn to drive from humans.
    Self-driving cars have come a long way in recent years, but the one thing that has continued to limit their success and ultimate adoption is their need to ‘think’ like humans. Sensors, machine vision, and GPS algorithms have made it possible for autonomous vehicles—or AVs—to navigate familiar environments. But that’s not enough to make complete automation totally safe, especially when people, bicyclists, other cars, and weather all create unpredictable situations.Machine learning (ML) has long been seen as the key to success, and Daniela and her team have now put ML to work to create a system that delivers the missing link, human reasoning, to the world of self-driving vehicles. Using ML, the system enables cars to learn how humans steer when facing unpredictable situations, such as a bicyclist veering into a car lane or another car making an illegal left turn. Not only does this technology have the potential to make AVs safer, but it literally opens the road for AVs to navigate in all environments, all of the time—even when there’s no road to travel at all.

RELATED: Seeking the Holy Grail: The quest for a safe, reliable, and universally accepted self-driving car by Daniela Rus


As a member of the ROBO Global Strategic Advisory Board, Daniela Rus brings global insights and a deep understanding of the disruptive technologies and innovative AI- and robotics-enabled solutions that hold the greatest potential to change the world. A researcher with a seemingly endless list of passions, Daniela, along with her team of dedicated researchers, is continuing to work tirelessly to apply the power of robotics and AI to help solve some of the world’s most challenging problems.

For Daniela, the overall goal is equally ambitious. “The objective of everything we do is to continue to expand the science and engineering of autonomy and intelligence,” she says. “Using new materials, robot designs, and the planning, reasoning, and learning algorithms that we’re developing in a variety of applications, we are rapidly advancing the bodies and the brains of machines. This new workforce is supporting and accelerating the cognitive and physical tasks of humans and, ultimately, changing how we tackle old and new challenges in nearly every field of science.”


About Daniela Rus

Daniela Rus is the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; Director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL); and Deputy Dean of Research for Schwarzmann College of Computing at MIT. She serves as the Associate Director of MIT’s Quest for Intelligence Core, and as Director of the Toyota-CSAIL Joint Research Center, whose focus is the advancement of AI research and its applications to intelligent vehicles. She is a member of the Toyota Research Institute advisory board, a Class of 2002 MacArthur Fellow, a fellow of ACM, AAAI and IEEE, and a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She earned her PhD in Computer Science from Cornell University. To learn more about Daniela’s research and how she is changing the world, visit danielarus.csail.mit.edu.

 

Photo credit: Jason Dorfman

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