Meet the godfather of Minnesota robotics [Part 1]


Nikos Papanikolopoulos“If I believe in something, no matter how many obstacles are in my way, I’m going to do it,” asserts Nikolaos Papanikolopoulos.

Nikos, for short, has been with the University of Minnesota for the past 20 years, having served as Director at the Center for Distributed Robotics for over a decade.

He is credited as being a major driving force behind the Scout, a small reconnaissance robot commercialized by industry star ReconRobotics that is now used by the United States Army.

Twice a Carnegie Mellon grad (Ph.D. 1992, M.S. 1988, Electrical and Computer Engineering), his robotics experience dates back to 1987 when he was one of the first two individuals to receive a computer science degree from National Technical University of Athens, Greece and was “doing robotics on napkins.”

Nikos is a Distinguished McKnight University Professor, IEEE Fellow, Director at SECTTRA, and was recently chairman of the organizing committee for ICRA 2012.  He has more than 200 publications, including journal and conference papers and book chapters, and has graduated more than 30 masters and doctoral students.

Today, he continues applying his blend of combined math, software, hardware, and systems design knowledge to invent new robotics platforms. We are fortunate to learn more about this quiet storm of brilliance through a two part interview series underwritten by Global Robotics Innovation Park:

What is it about Robotics?

I was always the guy interested in blowing up a garage…or taking an engine apart to see what the parts look like. I’ve always been asking “why?” and robotics is an area where you can ask why and find the answer — instant disappointment or gratification.

I’m a kid at heart, and for me robotics is the sandbox.  I am fortunate that I get paid to experiment and find solutions to problems to help people.


How and when did you become involved with the Center for Distributed Robotics?

I was hired at the University in 1992, an institution I have been tied to for 20 years.  I started as faculty and then became Director of the Center for Distributed Robotics in 1998/99 which was essentially started with a $5m DARPA grant around that same time.

That funding was the springboard for the creation of the center and we received a lot more awards from 1998 – 2002, but DARPA funding stopped when a program manager retired in 2004.  That was a tough time, but things came back and we began getting orders in 2005/2006 from the ARMY for our smaller tactical use robots like Scout.


What is the connection between you, ReconRobotics and the Center?

Together with seven of my students, we started inventing and building robotic systems that would eventually become some of the core intellectual property of ReconRobotics. I am not a businessperson with interest in making money, although I knew that the technology could save lives and would benefit from commercialization.   I think that ReconRobotics is on its way to being one of the best research-funded robotics success stories in the US.

My focus eventually returned back to building new robots, although many of our graduates are now employed by the company.


What have you been building since Recon?

Developed with the help of a 3M engineer, the Loper is like a mothership which can deploy smaller robots (Scout) in diverse terrain.

The Adelopod is a very small, stable, mobile and sophisticated yet simple robot.

Similar to the Adelopod, Aquapod is also a tumbler but amphibious in nature, capable of being submerged.

The hybrid/transformer robot we are developing is the next real game changer.    I wouldn’t be surprised if there was another company to come out of our technology within the next 6 – 12 months.

And actually, the two projects I am most excited about right now, are perpendicular to robotics. One involves image processing techniques and helping children, the other involves detecting cancer cells earlier by a factor of six.

Although I am excited about robotics, I like things that have the potential to have a broad impact on people.   That and I really enjoy working with new inventors on new projects.


How do you measure the scope of the Center?

We have a faculty of five, including myself.  Dr. Morellas and Dr. Gini are my key collaborators; Dr. Isler and Dr. Roumeliotis are specializing in their own unique programs. We are working with around 10 undergraduate and 20 graduate students.

Our annual budget ranges between $2m-$3m.  Around 70% is government funding (DHS, ARMY, NHS, etc.) 20% comes from the state of Minnesota and 10% comes from companies like Honeywell, Johnson Controls and Alliant Techsystems.

Stay tuned for part 2 with the godfather in one week…