Former NSF director becomes first chair of Michigan Robotics Department

Dawn Tilbury giving a lecture.
Dawn Tilbury, the new Ronald D. and Regina C. McNeil Department Chair of Robotics. Photo: Brenda Ahearn/University of Michigan, College of Engineering, Communications and Marketing

In the fall of 2021, Michigan Engineering announced it will be launching a new Robotics Department – the first department among the nation’s top 10 engineering schools. Now, the College has found its new department’s chair: a leader at the College, the University and at the National Science Foundation—and the person who helped pave the way for integrated robotics research at U-M.

Dawn Tilbury, associate vice president for research – convergence science at U-M, will serve as the first chair of the department committed to developing roboticists with both exceptional technical skills and an enthusiasm for creating positive change in society.

“Professor Tilbury has supported engineering research and education critical to the nation’s future, and fostered innovations that benefit society,” said Alec D. Gallimore, the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering. “For five years, she chaired the steering committee for a new initiative in robotics, and we are thrilled to have her return to lead the department into its new era.”

Tilbury, who recently led the National Science Foundation Directorate of Engineering where she supported engineering research and education vital to our nation’s future, says robots will transform our world for the better, and believes there’s untapped potential in the technology we’re yet to explore or fully understand.

“There’s amazing potential for Michigan Engineering to be the top college in this area. The breadth of our robotics department is what really separates us from our peers. There’s underwater, wheeled, legged, flying, space and medical robotics. We cover the whole spectrum,” Tilbury said. “The other great thing is that we’re embedded in a world-class university, and we have colleagues across domains who can help us think through the legal, psychological and social implications of robotics which is a great opportunity.”

She notes the role of research in enabling robots to operate in unstructured spaces, handling drudge work and reserving human talent for roles in which it is most needed. Take for example senior assisted living facilities. Tilbury believes robots at these facilities could clean and patrol hallways, freeing up staff to be more present with residents. It’s this kind of research that students at the new robotics department, located inside the 134,000-square-foot Ford Motor Company Robotics Building, will be equipped to tackle.

Tilbury, whose research spans a wide range of projects in the theory and application of control, including manufacturing systems and robotics, will sit in a departmental chair named after philanthropists Ronald D. McNeil and Regina C. McNeil. The McNeils are the first black donors to provide an endowed chair at the College and avid supporters of Michigan Engineering’s mission to establish a pipeline of equity-centered engineers. The new Robotics Department will define robotics education with an innovative undergraduate curriculum that puts people first. 

“The robotics faculty have created an education roadmap that is inclusive by design, reimagining how engineering is taught,” Gallimore said. “They bring together not only different technical fields but also the social sciences, a convergence that is critical to their human-centered mission.” 

Ten years ago, it would have been hard to deploy a robotics undergraduate program because technologies, such as 3D printing for rapidly prototyping new robot designs and high-speed laser scanning that enables simultaneous localization and mapping, were not as easily accessible. Now that these tools have become widely available, they can be rolled out at the undergraduate level.

“Our program will give undergraduates some of those tools to work at the edge of robotic technology and push boundaries in the field,” Tilbury said.

Tilbury is partly responsible for bringing the department into fruition, a journey that began more than a decade ago. She was selected as the first chair of the university’s Robotics Steering Committee where she identified and realized opportunities to advance robotics research at the College.

In 2011, Tilbury organized the committee to develop a report for university leadership, proposing the need for a graduate robotics program at Michigan Engineering. The report explained how graduate students across the College could benefit from learning from one another since many were using the same technology, including sensors, algorithms and computing platforms in their research. It also conveyed the importance for students and faculty to come together in a shared space to advance the field. 

In 2017, the Michigan Robotics Institute was born with a mission to create a collaborative community of roboticists who act with integrity, respect and transparency to benefit society through their research. As of now, the Institute has 31 core faculty members that span 14 departments, and 37 affiliate faculty from fields as diverse as architecture and materials science with more than 200 masters and PhD students enrolled.

During the 2020-21 academic year, the Institute began piloting undergraduate courses for first-year engineering students, covering topics such as computational linear algebra, robotic mechanisms and introduction to programming and artificial intelligence. 

In the course, “Robotics 101: Computational Linear Algebra,” students are quickly exposed to advanced robotics concepts through the theory and computational applications of linear algebra without needing four rigorous semesters of calculus as a prerequisite. This puts all students on a level-playing field given the reality not every student has access to calculus in high school. 

“Excellence in scholarship is not divorced from excellence in equal opportunity,” said Chad Jenkins, associate director of the Michigan Robotics Institute and a professor of electrical engineering and computer science. “Robotics 101 is great because we don’t expect anything of students coming into the course because we want to make it accessible to students at every level.”

The new Robotics department will take its shape from the Institute, developed under the leadership of Jessy Grizzle, the Elmer G. Gilbert Distinguished University Professor of Engineering, who served as director of the Robotics Institute since 2016. Tilbury understands it will not be easy to shift from an institute to a full-blown department, but is more than ready for the challenge. The department will add more capacity and resources for students and faculty to pursue robotics and shape how robotics can positively impact society.

“I want every student to walk away with an understanding of the potential for robots to help people and how they can be a part of that,” Tilbury said. “Whether they go to graduate school or move into their careers, I want them to walk away with the tools to build, design, program and rollout robotic technologies that contribute to positive change within our world.”

Tilbury is also the Herrick Professor of Engineering, professor of Mechanical Engineering and professor of electrical engineering and computer science. Gallimore is also the Richard F. and Eleanor A. Towner Professor of Engineering, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, and a professor of aerospace engineering. Grizzle is the Jerry W. and Carol L. Levin Professor of Engineering and a professor of electrical engineering and computer science and mechanical engineering.