Q & A with the godfather of Minnesota robotics [Part 2]



“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:

How satisfied are you with what the Center has accomplished so far?

I’m very tough with myself and see our work at about 7 on a scale of 10.  The hardest part of our work is doing more with less while also maintaining the necessary level of administration.  With more funding and faculty, we could reach a mass that could create a better Center, and a better robotics industry within Minnesota.

We could do a lot better work with less bureaucracy. The only person I point fingers at is me because obviously I have not been successful at figuring out how to do it better.

GRIPHow do you think Minnesota’s robotics industry fares in the global landscape?

I think that where we are right now is unknown.  We could be amongst the top five in the world (Carnegie-Mellon, MIT Media Lab, Stanford, University of Pennsylvania) and others like Berkeley, Austin-Texas and Michigan which we are competing with right now for a top spot.

Many of these environments have much more investment and I think we could fall to the bottom without the continuation of adequate funding.

Our competitive advantage here is work ethic, honor and loyalty.

What robotics companies in Minnesota are interesting to you?

Cymbet, LogicPD, MTS Systems and PaR Systems

How has your quest for curiosity changed over the years?

It has morphed. I’ll still listen to the 19 year old student who wants to work 20 hours a day to learn robotics, or the 30 year industry engineer who  wants to help with developing new knowledge.  My role and responsibilities have changed, but I still love to play and am still going to take things apart just to fix them.

Do you participate in extracurricular robotics programs or initiatives?

We have a grassroots Technology Day Camp which focuses on the introduction of robotics to underprivileged Minneapolis and St. Paul youth in grades six, seven and eight.  We’ve been doing this for 8 years and have worked with over 500 local kids. My hat goes off to those who help enable this.

I have also been working with ICRA since 1996.  In 2006, I decided that I was going to do the whole thing the way that I felt was the right way so I became the general chair of ICRA 2012 and we held the convention here in St. Paul earlier this year.

It took six years, but the all-inclusive turnout was close to 2,000 from over than 50 countries.  I think that it help show the world that Minnesota is serious about robotics.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I love soccer!