A deep Dive into Robotics with Henrik Christensen


For today's agenda we have  Dr. Henrik Christensen with us. He is the Director of the Contextual Robotics Institute at UC San Diego, a well known expert and a national policy leader for the field of robotics. Henrik has served as an associate editor for many of the most prestigious journals in the field. Research results have been commercialized by companies such as Electrolux, ABB, GM, Boeing, Permobil, WEDA, Intelligent Machines AB, and KUKA.

He is a fellow of AAAS & IEEE and was awarded an honorary doctorate (Dr. Techn. h.c.) from Aalborg University. Received the "Joseph Engelberger Award" 2011 and was also named "Boeing Supplier of the Year" that year.

A strong proponent of “real robots for real problems”. Building real systems is where the main challenges are. Built highly successful robotics centers in Europe and the US. He wrote the first EU robotics strategy and was the main editor of the US National Robotics strategy 2009, 2013, 2016 and 2020, which is the basis for the US National Robotics Initiative. Advisor to companies, governments, and investors on four continents.


Elisa Muñoz: For today's agenda. We have Dr. Henrik Christensen with us. He's a director of the contextual robotics Institute at UC San Diego and well-known expert in the field. Thank you so much doctor for being here and joining us this morning. 

Dr Henrik: Hey, thank you for having me. This is going to be fun.

Elisa Muñoz: So, before we start, why don't we let the main guest introduce himself? Dr. If you could please.

Dr Henrik: Sure. As we mentioned, I'm the director of robotics at UC San Diego. I'm sort of known as somebody that moves every 10 years. So I was born and raised in Denmark a long time ago. I was there for 10 years. Then I moved to Sweden and started a new research center there on autonomous systems. After 10 years in Sweden, I then, you know, it's a cold dark place. “Let me try and go somewhere else.” So then I went to Atlanta and was there for 10 years to build up a new research center on robotics and, and tell them machines. And then finally, five years ago, I came to San Diego. You know, it's always sunny in San Diego. 

So now I'm here. So through this I have done a lot of work in robotics. I was on the team that developed the first robotics vacuum cleaner. I've worked on sort of autonomous driving cars. I've worked with KUKA on doing industrial robotics. So very broad experience of building robotic systems. 

Elisa Muñoz: And how did you first start? Like, what was your first approach in robotics?

Dr Henrik: So my background was in computer vision. You know, I was using cameras and, I was like, what's the fun of using a camera if I can't move it around? It would be much more interesting if I could put this camera on a robot, I can drive around and figure out what's going on in the world. So, we got a small robot to put cameras on it, drove it around and, and that way I can sort of close the loop. I can understand what is in the world with a camera based on this. I can sort of build the equivalent of what we have an internal model of what the world looks like, and then I can start interacting with it.

So that was for instance, what we did for the, for the first vacuum cleaner. How can I build a simple model of what the world looks like, and then use this to figure out how to come up with an efficient strategy for pre-cleaning the world?

This was about 30 years ago when I started, we were using really crappy cameras. It was a lot to sort of broadcast cameras that were being used and, and, and we had to sort of rely on and we can only get images that were so big. And then over those 30 years, we've seen progress mainly driven forward by cell phone technology and sort of consumer electronics. So based on this, you know, today I can sort of, in my cell phone, I can do processing that is at least a thousand times more efficient than what we could do 30 years ago. So, today we have much more computing power. We have much better cameras. We can do it in a much smaller footprint, you know? So, this is sort of a small embedded computer that you can easily get today.

Elisa Muñoz: I noticed that there is a National Robotics special week where you can find out about new, new developments in the industry, can you talk a little bit about that?

Dr Henrik: So we started doing the national robotics roadmap 2009, and then I was presenting it to Congress, how can I help? And they said, well, let's write a law that says that the second week of April, every year is national robotics week. And, and so, so all, every year, the second week is national robotics week. And then actually I robots, the graders of the Roomba helped us bring together and say, we should, we should provide a lot of information about what are the events that's going on locally to sort of promote robotics.

So my robot has been really instrumental in bringing this together. There is a national robotics week.org where you can go and you can see sort of a map of what is going on in your neighborhood. And in many cases, the universities, the, the local high schools are opening up their doors, robotics companies opening up their doors and doing sort of promotion and talking about what robotics is. So, so, and, and in many cases you will have open houses across the nation. 

I think last year we had more than 340 events going on. And, and, and in all the states across the nation. So you can go to this and find out, is there a local high school in my area, or is there a local university where I can go and see what's going on.

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Elisa Muñoz: And whenever we're in this conversation with other experts, about companies and how it's their process and how to develop, you know, robots they even told me that they have found out or they have faced different challenges when it comes to the procurement process. Are you by any chance close with this process at your company?

Dr Henrik: So I think in general, right now, we are seeing sort of the supply chain problems that are sort of impacting everybody, which is sad because there's, so there's such a big demand. You know, the economy is growing, we're seeing all of this. And at the same time, we sort of are being slowed down by supply chain logistics. But at the same time, it's also an opportunity. So we're seeing where we can use this to, how we can help bring in more automation to help solve some of these challenges? How can we do faster unloading, how can we do faster loading? How can I do deliveries to you faster?

So I think, yes, it seems supply chain challenges right now, but we're also seeing it as an opportunity. Let's figure out how we can solve this long-term so that the next time we get a pandemic or something like that, then we will be more robust. We will have to build a system where we have better analytics. We understand where the bottlenecks are, and then we can use this. So yes, we are. We are seeing challenges of how we can build, but I don't want to know I'm not interested in solving. And certainly as an academic, I'm not interested in solving a problem for the next month. I'm interested in solving a problem that will give me growth for the next three, four years.

Elisa Muñoz: Any last advice that you can give to young engineers, young entrepreneurs, young people who are interested in robotics? 

Dr Henrik: So there's so many opportunities right now. There's so many tools available and also, you know, we can do, if you're interested in mechanical engineering, we can do 3d printing. So we can do rapid prototyping. We can use, you know, cat tools to very rapidly go from design all the way from analysis and you can do solid work or, or any of these two very rapidly do this. If you want to do programming, there's so many tools out there. There's so many good tutorials that getting started is very manageable. And then I said, you know, build a network, build, you know, no people in social media know people and figure out how can, how can you focus on what you you're good at and outsource the rest to build sort of a network and prove this.

I think it's possible to get started and then figure out locally word on my local incubators, where can I find an iCore program? And what can I find that would sort of help you get started? So it's important not to say, oh, I don't know, how would I do this? There's somebody locally with that expertise that can help you make it happen. So I'm sort of saying, you know, go for it full speed. And there's always good people out there that are willing to help.

Elisa Muñoz:  Thank you so much doctor for being here. It was a pleasure.

Dr Henrik: Thank you. Thank you for having me have a great day.

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