The Mind Behind the Bot

hurst_AtriaOregon State’s ATRIAS is a robot with a lot going for it. Bipedal and agile enough to tackle unexpected obstacles in stride, it’s gained national recognition, press coverage, and caught the eye of the government, who recently invited the bot out to be displayed at the DARPA Robotics Challenge.

ATRIAS deserves the spotlight, there’s no question about it. But it might be time for ATRIAS to share the spotlight with some of the great minds behind its creation.

One such mind is Jonathan W. Hurst, an associate professor of mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering at Oregon State University. He is one of the masterminds behind the little bot that could that is ATRIAS.

Hurst is an unassuming man who probably wouldn’t describe himself as a mastermind. He dresses neatly, nothing flashy, with only a small pair of round glasses to serve as any sort of accessory. But he clearly has a lot going on. Behind those small glasses lies a buzzing mind, constantly running the numbers and processing possible solutions to the endless number of problems he, and his robots, face. For example, as we initially sat down to talk, he paused for a moment to jot down some notes, dying to get some info out of his head and onto the page. Hurst is always working and always building, but never seeking fame or money as many do in the technology space, and that’s why he’s the perfect guy to anchor the fledgling robotics program at Oregon State.

“What I don’t respect is people who end up making a lot of money and then they just buy yachts with helicopter landing pads and mini spaces for their mini yachts to go into. Spending it all on themselves,” Hurst said. “That’s just not what it’s about. What it’s about is doing important things, doing things that are useful and that make a difference. That’s the great motivator for me.”

Looking back into his past, Hurst struggled to recall a time when he wasn’t interested in legged robotics, which has been his specialty since his college days.

“I think I’ve just always been excited about robots,” he said. “It’s just something I wanted to do when I was seven and it turned into a good career. I built little walking robots out of LEGO when I was a kid. I played with model airplanes and made hovercraft ones. I just liked building stuff. And I was interested in legs. Not a lot of people were doing it, so early on I was able to gain some early expertise that made me an expert in that. That’s an advantage. Being an expert in something no one else is.”

Even with that specialty, Hurst didn’t always find success, especially in college.

“Freshman year, I entered to do the Walking Machine Decathlon,” Hurst said. “That was an international competition, there are usually 15 or 20 teams that would show up from around North America to do walking machines. So we went. We did terribly. I remember distinctly one of the people at the competition telling us, ‘The robot you tried to build is really just too complicated. I think it was too hard for you.’ That pissed us off.”

But he took that loss and leveraged the knowledge gained from that competition into success. A win at that competition two years later turned into his entrance into the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon, which turned into a successful doctorate, which led to his time at Oregon State and the revival of the robotics program. Which all led to the birth of ATRIAS.

ATRIAS allowed Hurst to demonstrate in front of DARPA, to showcase the talents of the scientists he works with, and even to start his own company, but he thinks it’s just about time to move on, likening it to a home ready to be left behind.

“If you move into a home that’s a real fixer-upper, and you spend five or six years of blood, sweat, and tears fixing up that house, and you kind of get to the point of diminishing returns, but you’re ready to move on and glad to be done with it and ready to get to the next thing—that’s how ATRIAS feels,” Hurst explained. “We spent five years designing and building this thing. I’m very pleased with what we accomplished and demonstrated, but I think we pushed the robot to just about what it can achieve.”

And so Hurst looks to continue to leverage his successes into bigger and better things.

While at the DARPA Robotics Challenge, Hurst said he was approached by a great number of potential collaborators. “I got a lot of cards at [the DARPA Robotics Challenge]. My favorite one is from Michael Curry Design; they made the giant lion that Katy Perry rode during the Super Bowl,” he said. “And they’re in Portland. They work a lot with Disney and Disney research. How cool would it be if our company, Agility Robotics, gets to build a life-sized, functional AT-ST to walk around Disney Parks?”

Hurst doesn’t only look to leverage his success into being able to make sci-fi a reality. As previously stated, Hurst has ambitions to better day-to-day life. Calling Bill Gates and Elon Musk his two inspirations, as they both leverage their successes into the betterment of humankind, Hurst hopes to continue to build and to follow in their footsteps.

“It’s about taking what you do and, instead of looking back at what you achieved and… taking it easy, it’s about taking the new level of resources that we have and saying what’s the next big thing [scientists] can do?” Hurst stated. “That’s what I strive to do all the time.”

ATRIAS may be on its way out the door, but Hurst is moving forward stronger than ever. With a new start-up company and a ton of students passing through his doors, Hurst is well on his way to fulfilling his goal of being a Musk-esque talent, likely to leave his mark on both human and robot kind.

 “We had a lab that had maybe 10 or 15 people, students and post docs and graduate students,” Hurst described. “I hope we can have a company that has 50 or 60 professional engineers in the next eight years. And then, I hope we can be successful with a product there and then we can leverage that into 800 people, and then leverage that into something that’s gonna make a difference. Legs for exoskeletons that will get people out of wheelchairs or legs for disabled people. That’s important. That’s what I hope to do.”

By Nathan Hermanson