A trip to MARS shows the rise to prominence of Northeastern robotics

It’s known as a marquee event for the brightest minds, an exclusive three-day getaway hosted by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who hand-selects attendees from the fields of machine learning, home automation, robotics, and space. And at this year’s MARS conference, held in March, three Northeastern specialists in robotics found themselves among the chosen few.

One of them, Peter Whitney, professor of engineering who specializes in robot mechanics, said that throughout the conference, other attendees consistently commented on “Northeastern’s rise in robotics.”

That’s high praise when it comes from MARS.

“Amazon wants stay close to technology, figure out what’s happening before it happens, and be on really good terms with the community so that if something does happen, they can engage quickly,” said Robert Platt, assistant professor in the College of Computer and Information Science, who has attended the conference two years in a row. His work on robot manipulation is particularly interesting to Amazon, an online retail giant that ships thousands of products every day.

“If they can increase automation in shipping—for example, having robots pack the boxes instead of humans—that would be huge,” Platt said. He creates algorithms that allow robots to complete hand manipulation tasks that are considered very difficult in the field, such as picking up objects of varying shapes.

Platt’s algorithms are open-source, and are some of the best in the world, according to another Northeastern attendee at MARS, Hanumant Singh, professor of electrical and computer engineering. Singh specializes in autonomous aerial and underwater robots. His work has led to the discovery of a supercolony of penguins, a historic Antarctic Ocean expedition, and breakthrough research to study zooplankton.

The conference included talks by industry experts and plenty of time for networking. High-level Amazon executives mingled with entrepreneurs and researchers from academia. This was an opportunity for scientists and engineers to share their ideas with business leaders who have massive research and development budgets, Singh said. Amazon’s, for example, is about $14.7 billion per year—more than twice the annual budget of the National Science Foundation.

Singh, incidentally, said he was surprised he was chosen to attend MARS. But given the selective nature of the invite list, he said, “If you’re there, you’re not there by mistake.”