Daniel Jacobs is a 6'5'' junior studying electrical and computer engineering, with a personality large enough to match his height. While his interests in math and physics might not set him drastically different from other engineering students, his enthusiasm for robotics very well might. This passion propelled him to a position this past summer as a Carnegie Mellon undergraduate robotics researcher.
“I’m inspired to do robotics by the idea of not just creating a mechanical device, but making it do — at least seemingly — some intelligent tasks,” Jacobs said. “It could be as simple as a line-following robot.... It seems trivial to [make a robot] follow a line, but at the same time it’s still an intelligent task.”
Despite his humble claims, Jacobs’ research focuses on what most would consider to be nontrivial: autonomous robotic mapping. Specifically, he programmed a quadrotor helicopter — typically referred to as just a quadrotor — to essentially fly itself while simultaneously describing, or mapping, its local environment. This type of research is useful for further advancing 3-D indoor mapping technologies, which helps architects, law enforcement personnel, emergency first responders, and others do their jobs more efficiently.
The CMUQuadrotor research team, composed of Carnegie Mellon Robotics Club members including Jacobs, is attempting to create an autonomous craft capable of navigating both indoor and outdoor environments with the aid of a Microsoft Kinect sensor.
“There are about 10 of us working on the project,” Jacobs said. “Our goal is to have it working by the end of this school year.”
In addition to work on the quadrotor, Jacobs serves as the Robotics Club’s electronics master, managing the club’s large inventory and making sure required parts are in stock.
His official duties as student, researcher, and electronics master aside, he also takes time out of his schedule to advise current and prospective students on robotics. Jacobs indicated that robotics research had always interested him during high school, and it was partly what motivated him to come to Carnegie Mellon.
“Research is taking some larger goal, breaking it down into a series of tasks, setting goals, and steadily working your way to the larger goal,” Jacobs observed. “CMU seemed to have the best people doing this.... I thought it was very interesting and I wanted to be there.”
So what was his favorite moment as a researcher? Jacobs didn’t hesitate too long before answering.
“There was the whole ‘I just made that thing fly down the hallway just based on its camera feed’ moment,” he said. “Basically, the ‘it actually works’ moment… that was awesome.”