This month, several of us had the opportunity to spend a couple of days at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). It was an interesting experience, to say the least. The meetings took place on the CMU campus because Craig Giffi, a leader in Deloitte Consulting* LLP’s Consumer and Industrial Products practice, recommends that we spend time in the field learning and seeing new things. He chose CMU because of its world-class programs in robotics and advanced manufacturing. (The fact that Deloitte has a strong relationship with CMU—we recruited almost 50 new hires there last year—also helped).
Amid all of our discussions, we had the opportunity to meet and mingle with some of the faculty at CMU. Among them was Professor Howie Choset—the snake robot guy. Choset strikes you as young when you consider his achievements. He exhibits the kind of high energy and passion for his work that is attractive to students. He is also very good at helping you understand why his work is important. Choset taught me a lot about snake robots.
They are called snake robots because, well, they look and act like snakes. If you have never seen one, check them out. Snake robots are designed to operate in confined spaces. Choset has a robot that he can send into a collapsed building to search for survivors or through a pipe to check for leaks. For fun, he will offer to have it circle around and then climb up your leg (no one volunteered for this experience). He has another robot that can enter your body near your ribs, maneuver around to the back of your heart, and perform surgery. Robots like this could save your life someday—in any number of ways.
The snake robots were certainly interesting, but they were not the most interesting aspect of the lab. That distinction was reserved for the people “driving” the robots. These were no elite technicians in their white lab coats. They were, instead, just average looking students.
It turns out that in addition to building snake robots, Choset is the director of the undergraduate robotics minor, and he teaches an undergraduate overview class on robotics. When you walk into his lab, one of the first things you notice is that it is filled with some of these undergraduates. Two of them demonstrated the different robots while another sat calmly working (in bare feet) on a computer program to drive them. A fourth was working on a (non-snake) robot that is designed to place rivets in the wings of airplanes.
We hear a lot these days about the importance of promoting STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) skills in our elementary and high schools. We hear a lot about the importance of training young people for the careers in STEM fields that can drive the economy of the future. Deloitte even sponsors some of these programs. Accepting that these investments should be important—in abstract terms—is easy, but understanding what kind of specific impact they might have can be hard. After all, what does a “globally competitive economy” actually look like? Choset’s lab demonstrates that the benefits of STEM can be very concrete. The benefit can be the creation of specific technologies that can add to the length and quality of our lives.
We all hope that it is not us, our family, or our friends that experience a collapsing building or a major heart surgery, but it could be. If it is, we may be glad to find a snake robot coming to our rescue. When it does, we should remember that some college student might be part of the team that built it. That’s cool, and it makes investment in STEM programs cool too.