One of the most visible gauges of the quality of a university's robotics program is how it finishes in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's self-driving car races.
This car, Stanford University's "Junior," a modified Volkswagen Passat, participated in the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge at a former Air Force base in Oro Grande, Calif.
Although "Junior" crossed the finish line first, a rival car from Carnegie Mellon University was faster overall.
Here's one thing that's always true of university robotics programs: they aren't cheap to run. This car, "Alice," was the California Institute of Technology's entry for the
A modified Ford F-350, Alice chalked up a bill of about $700,000 in the year before the race, when staff salaries were factored in (the team had roughly 50 people on it). The project had sponsorship from Caltech itself, Mohr Davidow Ventures, and Applanix.
The small DARPA Challenge teams fielded by Cornell University are unique in that they often consist primarily of undergraduates. While this means that it's tougher for them to have a shot at the prize money, it also means that undergraduates on the team can get a real, hands-on experience in building, testing, and racing the robot cars.
Here's the interior of the self-driving Chevy Tahoe that Cornell entered in the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge.
But not all universities' robot research projects involve self-driving cars. This one, a humanoid robot named "Domo," was created at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) by then-Ph.D. candidate Aaron Edsinger.
In a testament to how robotics research often crosses the gulf between academia and the corporate sector, Edsinger was working under Rodney Brooks, who was then serving as both CSAIL director and chief technology officer of home robotics company iRobot.
University robotics research can also result in fascinating collaborations with government agencies and corporations. Here's "Zoe," a solar-powered robotic prototype developed jointly by Carnegie Mellon University and the NASA Ames Research Center, thanks to a $3 million grant.
Zoe is an astrobiologist--exploring and studying life in hostile desert environments on Earth, and perhaps other planets down the line.
And here's a robot that swims. Developed by a team at the University of Florida for the 9th International Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Competition in San Diego in 2006, the victorious "SubjuGator" was a robot submarine that ran the Windows XP operating system.