Innovative Robotics Research Keeps Spotlight On MIT Grad Student

Innovative Robotics Research Keeps Spotlight On MIT Grad Student
James McLurkin recipient of annual Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for inventiveness
By Ronald Roach

It’s not common that graduate school research brings national attention and prestigious awards to doctoral candidates. For James McLurkin, however, his work in robotics has won widespread recognition, most recently a prestigious student inventor’s prize at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

McLurkin, a 30-year-old MIT computer science graduate student, has become nationally known for designing and building tiny robots that interact and work together similar to how ants or bees interact. His research, which portends the possibility of robot teams taking on dangerous tasks such as clearing out minefields, won him the ninth $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for inventiveness in late February.

“The competition is pretty stiff. The prize recognizes that James is a talented and deserving individual,” says Dr. Rodney Brooks, director of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, who has worked closely with McLurkin.

In a recommendation letter for the prize, Brooks stated, “In the future, the world will be full of teams of mobile robots and they will all trace their ancestry to those developed by James McLurkin while still a student at MIT.”

The prize is named after the late inventor Jerome Lemelson. His foundation established a Lemelson-MIT program in 1994 to raise the awareness of inventors and innovators among young people. McLurkin was selected by a judging panel of educators, inventors and entrepreneurs for his “initiative, creativity and extraordinary inventiveness.”

While previously having concentrated on building and designing robots as an undergraduate and master’s degree candidate, McLurkin now focuses on developing the software tools and distributed computing techniques to enable swarms of robots to act as a group as well as individually. After earning degrees in electrical engineering, McLurkin turned to computer science to develop algorithms and techniques for programming robots.

This past fall, “Invention at Play,” a museum exhibition featuring McLurkin’s work began a national tour, beginning in Washington, D.C. He is one of several inventors showcased in the exhibition, which is currently at Boston’s Museum of Science. “Invention at Play” is sponsored by the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation and it debuted at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History last fall.

“It was very surreal to see yourself on display,” McLurkin says of his visit to the Smithsonian in Washington.

McLurkin’s work in robotics first came to prominence in the mid-1990s when he was an undergraduate at MIT in electrical engineering. He gained national attention when he was credited with inventing the world’s smallest self-contained autonomous robots, measuring a cubic inch in size and mimicking the behavior of ants. While working on the project, he had placed a container of ants on his desk to learn the way they interacted, communicated and performed tasks. He programmed the robotic ants to navigate their environment, allowing them to hunt for objects and communicate among themselves.

After McLurkin moved on to the University of California at Berkeley where he earned a master’s in electrical engineering, he grew absorbed in the computing and software development challenges involved in making swarms of mobile robots accomplish tasks. The computer science issues and challenges eventually led McLurkin back to Massachusetts where he took a lead research job with a firm known as iRobot based in Somerville in 1999.

At iRobot, McLurkin managed a research team that constructed more than 100 small robots equipped to communicate with each other, compute their relative positions and navigate with sensors. The swarm robots are four and a half inches per side, making them more than a hundred times larger than the robotic ants he had developed as an undergraduate. While at iRobot, McLurkin recognized that the computer programming work that was going into directing and controlling the robots could be pursued as academic research so he returned to MIT in 2001 as a doctoral student.

A native of Baldwin, N.Y., McLurkin says he got considerable encouragement and support from his parents to pursue scientific projects and interests. As a youngster, he delighted in taking apart and rebuilding gadgets, electronic devices and toys. Even before graduating from high school, McLurkin had already programmed his own video games and built robots.

Despite a busy schedule, McLurkin manages to devote time to community outreach and being a mentor to minority students. For several years, McLurkin taught in MIT’s summer program for incoming minority freshman students. And these days, McLurkin teaches classes at The Saturday Engineering Enrichment and Discovery (SEED) Academy at MIT for minority high-school students, often demonstrating scientific concepts by using toys, such as Lego™ bricks and model trains.

While he’s optimistic that his doctoral research will yield the software tools that will empower scientists to program mobile robots, McLurkin says he wants his career to be in teaching and research. He is expected to complete his doctorate in 2006.



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