The face of the future

It’s evident the robotics lab is lived in: bits of colored wire, Allen wrenches and circuit boards litter the large work table. Cast-off toys stacked around the perimeter of the room wait to be used in a future robot. The trashcan is full of empty drink bottles and cans of Rockstar energy drink.

The lab is the central hangout for the Robotics and Automation Society, the PSU club that has as many interests and projects as the room has abandoned robots. Exceptional students have driven the club every year, but the group largely takes its cues from the leadership, which, at PSU, is often transitory.

The robot enthusiasts are currently gearing up for this weekend’s PDXBOT competition, held in the Smith Memorial Student Union Ballroom. The contest draws robot buffs from all over Portland to compete in events like robot sumo wrestling or obstacle course navigation.

In the lab, three students huddle around the incomplete robot for Saturday’s RoboMagellan competition. Their goal is to build a robot to navigate a course in the Park Blocks faster than other teams, but on Monday afternoon, there are still details to work out.

“Where’s the tape? Why don’t we have any tape?” one mutters.

“Check Tony’s kit,” another replies.

They raid Tony’s equipment, cutting the electrical tape with heavy-duty tin snips and taping the offending part.

“Our problem is people graduate with all the knowledge,” said RAS President Tony Muilenburg. “New people show up with all the motivation but no one shows them how to get things going.”

In past years, individual projects have set the tone. Building a cast of robot actors is the pet project of Dr. Marek Perkowski, the professor who advises the club. Grad students have used robotics to create interactive art projects and programmed robots to speak and focus on a human face.

Muilenburg has walked the line between keeping the club a cohesive group and pushing challenging projects, Perkowski said. “Tony has a very good attitude, trying to include everyone and get people involved, working on projects that are not complicated.”

This year, the club has focused on time-honored favorites.

“When you ask students, ‘What is your dream robot?’ they say, ‘oh, a battle bot.’ I always tell them, it’s not scientific, make peaceful robots,” he said. “At least they really want to build something. Many PSU students want to get grades and forget.”

“It’s still not what I dream. I want students who want to build robots that don’t exist in the world. It can be done. “

Getting people interested is the biggest hurdle, Perkowski said.

“On paper, there are maybe 20 people [in the club]. If we had 10 students like Tony … ” he trailed off. “The point is that RAS is mostly juniors and seniors, sometimes grad students. They’re here for two years. If you know something, you are gone.”

Once students have experience, asking them to help new students can be a tough sell, Perkowski said. “When they are too advanced they prefer to do their own research.”

See the bots


What: The sixth annual PDXBOT competition features robots from Portland State and the Portland area competing in a variety of events. Saturday’s “Robo-Magellan” competition requires robots to autonomously navigate through obstacle courses. The main event on Sunday will feature hands-on robotics demonstrations and exhibits, as well as competitions like robot soccer and robot sumo wrestling. 

When and Where: Saturday, April 30 from 2 – 5 p.m. in the Park Blocks

Sunday, May 1 from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. in the Smith Memorial Student Union Ballroom

How much: The event is free and open to the public. Visit for more details.

“My idea was to make an open lab where people could just come and go. Twenty, 30 people have the key. But robots got stolen, projectors got stolen, cameras too. It’s very frustrating. The simplest thing would be to say, buy all your own components, but then not much gets done.”

RAS, and indeed the entire Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, is always looking for donors. Intel offered $45,000 to outfit a PSU lab, and other software companies have chipped in, donating money and equipment to the club.

Muilenburg, who praises PSU’s internship program for connecting him with a job at Intel, said the company is interested in seeing students get trained before entering the work world, but added, “It’s also a tax write-off. It’s good advertising.”

He estimates several thousand people will attend PDXBOT, the robotics showcase Sunday in Smith Ballroom.

Pete Skeggs, a software consultant and Portland Area Robotics Society (PARTS) member, has coordinated PDXBOT with Muilenburg.

Education leaders are beginning to realize how far the U.S. has lagged behind Japan in the robotics field, Skeggs said.

“In Japan, there are huge programs at universities, country-wide initiatives, Honda, Toyota and Sony are working on this. They’re throwing billions at this stuff.

Perkowski has involved high school students in his work, but he notes that few are attracted to PSU.

“They learned a lot about robotics here. Unfortunately those who are really good go directly to top colleges,” he said, recalling students now at Carnegie Mellon and Drexel University.

“My goal is that there would be students building robots. Not only on paper, not only software.”