Center for Autonomy Professor brings robotic motion expertise to campus

10/3/2019 As told to Allie Arp, CSL

Written by As told to Allie Arp, CSL

Kris Hauser joined the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign after more than a decade of working in robotic motion and planning. He currently has appointments in the Depts. of Computer Science and Electrical and Computer Engineering, and is also associate director of robotics for the Center for Autonomy in the Coordinated Science Lab. Hauser comes directly from Duke University, and brings with him the Intelligent Motion Lab, which he started at Indiana University. He got his PhD from Stanford University and his bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley. In addition to his work at Illinois, he is also a consultant for Waymo.
Kris Hauser
Kris Hauser

Read on to learn more about one of the newest robotics faculty, Kris Hauser.

Can you describe your research in 50 words?

My general research topic is robot motion planning and control. Robots need to make decisions about how to behave in order to accomplish interesting tasks. My lab provides software for robots to make sense of the world and perform the behaviors their designers ask them to do.

What are the goals of your Intelligent Motion Lab?

What we’re trying to do in the Intelligent Motion Lab (IML) is develop the algorithms that power robots’ decisions, in a very general way. By that, I mean that the same algorithms can accomplish seemingly unrelated kinds of tasks. These can range from manipulation problems in automated warehouses to autonomous vehicles that need to make decisions on the road to medical robots that need to access various points inside the human body.

What makes our lab somewhat unique is that we don’t just work on software, but we try and build the systems themselves to study how our algorithms work on these prototypes in real-world scenarios. Some people call this approach “full stack” robotics, where we work on everything from low-level hardware to the highest level of decision-making and guidance.

What brought you and your lab to Illinois?

I am impressed by the scale of resources and the depth of activities that are happening at Illinois. Robotics really requires having people from many disciplines working together to solve difficult problems. I came from Duke, which is a good but small school, so I was not going to be able to find the professional network of local expertise that would have made this work successful. Here at Illinois I have already met many potential colleagues I hope to work with in the upcoming years, and our discussions are already generating fantastic ideas.

What can you share with us about your experiences with Google’s Waymo?

It’s amazing to see the robotics industry taking hold and getting types of investment and resources at a scale only found in industry. To see all the activity at Google, Amazon, NVIDIA, and other companies is really thrilling: as a person who has been studying robotics for more than 15 years, this is the first time that this level of investment has ever been made in this field. I look forward to seeing what industry and academia can do together.

Kris Hauser speaking to students in the Siebel Center
Kris Hauser speaking to students in the Siebel Center

What are some things you’re currently working on?

One of the things we’re gung-ho on is the idea of telerobotics. We are building a system called TRINA that is a mobile manipulation robot meant to be controlled by a human operator that can perform nursing tasks in a quarantine environment. This is useful because in outbreak scenarios and for patients who are immunocompromised, the nurse can perform their duties without putting themselves or the patient at greater risk of infection.

How will students be involved with your research?

I advise graduate students from many different departments, but I also am passionate about involving undergraduates in research. There is a new competition called the ANA Avatar XPRIZE, which is asking teams to build a robotic avatar that can be built by humans in a remote environment. I’ve gotten started in forming an Illinois team of 15 students, most of whom are undergraduates, along with some masters and PhD students.

What do groups like the Center for Autonomy do for Illinois students?

There are a lot of upcoming opportunities in the robotics field at Illinois. The robotics group has grown by almost double in the last couple of years and that comes with more research projects, more interesting classes for students to take, as well as more state-of-the-art facilities that support all these activities. Be on the lookout for some exciting developments!

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This story was published October 3, 2019.