Boston University (BU) recently opened a state-of-the-art facility where students can design, build and test a wide range of robots to solve real-world problems. The Robotics and Autonomous Systems Teaching and Innovation Center (RASTIC) is a $9 million joint effort between the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative (MassTech) and BU’s Center for Information and Systems Engineering (CISE). 

MassTech is an industry collaborative that aims to support high-tech industries in Massachusetts. It chose BU among many other applicants largely based on the College of Engineering’s strong partnerships with industry and its ability to supply the local workforce with qualified graduates. MassTech was also attracted to the school’s cutting-edge research in artificial intelligence technology.

The goal of the initiative is to keep the Massachusetts robotics industry at the leading edge. The Bay State is a major hub for hundreds of companies that are integrating AI, deep learning and machine learning technology, with applications ranging from autonomous vehicles to soft robotics used in medical devices.

“Two elements make RASTIC unique,” says Ioannis Paschalidis, Ph.D., a professor of electrical and computer engineer at BU who also serves as the director of CISE. “For one, AI is bound to revolutionize robotics, and we have a critical mass of faculty and large federally funded projects supporting such research.

“We’re not a research lab,” says Kenn Sebesta, Ph.D., director of RASTIC. “It’s a place where all engineering students can come and learn about robotics through hands-on approaches.”

According to Sebesta, RASTIC is designed to support the education of graduate students, but it also provides a maker space for undergrads working on capstone projects. In addition, the flexible facility can easily adjust to new technology developments and evolving industry needs.

“We want students who graduate from BU to have an understanding of the tools, techniques and skills [necessary] to make an impact in the robotics industry,” notes Sebesta. “This facility will equip them with the knowledge and experience they need to succeed in the real world.

“Whether applying knowledge gained in a course or pursuing a passion project outside the curriculum, RASTIC resources are open to all engineering students, and staff are available to provide guidance and mentoring,” explains Sebesta.

“Students can design, build and test all kinds of robots, from simple consumer ’bots to GPU-fueled, AI-powered cutting-edge marvels,” says Sebesta. “Aerial and ground-based robots can navigate dynamic landscapes, assisted by Hollywood-grade motion-capture technology. Students can custom-mold silicon to create the flexible, ‘soft’ robots that are rapidly emerging for medical applications.”

A consortium of robotics companies with a strong Massachusetts presence will serve as a steering committee and as a source for projects, helping test ideas and recruit students for careers in the robotics and autonomous systems industry.

Sebesta is confident that RASTIC will produce students ready to enter the workforce and begin making an impact in industry right out of college. “These students will be able to bring to bear the skills and knowledge which they’ve gained to instantly help a company in its challenges and then keep moving the company forward,” he points out.