Robot maker to watch
Kati Daltorio

The Navy is looking to Kathryn Daltorio ’05, MSE ’07, PhD ’13, for a robot that can handle the surf.

 If you spend any time watching crabs, as Kathryn Daltorio does, you’ll notice they don’t really crawl across the beach. They grab the ground and pull themselves along. 

In that crab-like grip—which is strong enough to withstand pounding waves—Daltorio ’05, MSE ’07, PhD ’13, sees a powerful amphibious robot. The U.S. Navy agrees. 

Recently, the assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering was honored with a 2019 Young Investigator Award from the Office of Naval Research. She’ll receive between $500,000 and $750,000 to advance her vision of a crab-like robot that can slog across dangerous beaches--perhaps to search for unexploded ordnance. 

“You want to be able to crawl around in the surf zone to make those places safer,” Daltorio explained. “We’re exploring ideas of crab locomotion, and crab-like approaches to rough ground.” 

As a specialist in biologically inspired robots, she tends to think enthusiastically about such things. So do her colleagues. Robots that resemble greyhounds and cockroaches, worms and grass hoppers animate the labs on the eighth floor of the Glennan Building, home to the Biologically Inspired Robot Laboratory of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. 

Daltorio was a student of Professor Roger Quinn, who pioneered the genre. In 2017, she became his colleague when she joined the faculty. 

Her experimentation with beetle-like climbing robots, which helped earn her PhD, led her to imagine machines that can grip with the force of nature. In her newly opened “Crab Lab” on Glennan's eighth floor, she and her students study prototypes of amphibious robots as they crawl through tubs of sand and defy artificial waves induced in a giant fish tank. Kati Daltorio

“I feel like biology sets this tremendous standard of how robots can work,” Daltorio said. “I don’t know if we’re ever going to meet it. But we can be inspired by it!” 

Her award is celebrated by many. The funds will allow more students to get involved in cutting edge robotics research. The honor is another mark of distinction for a venerable department. 

The Navy bestows its young investigator awards upon a chosen few: about 10 percent of the 260 applicants nationwide. Robert Gao, the Chair of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, believes Daltorio is the department's first female faculty member to receive the award in the nearly 35-year history of the program. 

“We’re in our being proud mode right now,” he said. “She started her career here with a bang.”

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