Interview: Dr Dylan Drotman, Robotics Engineer at University of California San Diego

It’s our honor to have Dr Dylan Drotman from University of California San Diego with us today. Dr Drotman’s research interests focus on the design, modeling, fabrication, and actuation of physically soft robots that are powered by air or water.

He obtained his B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering at University of California San Diego. He has also been a Guest Lecturer in Experimental Robotics, Soft Robotics and Computer Aided Design & Analysis.

Some of his interesting personal projects include Zip it, Mechanical Clapper, Hexapod, Photovore Robot, Hovercraft, Mini Dynamometer, The Beast, Microalignment Device, MIVINCI- Robotic Arm to name a few.

He is currently a doctoral candidate in the Bioinspired Robotics and Design Lab.

I have been following his research and contacted him for an interview to which he agreed even during his hectic hours of work. So, without much ado, please find Dr Dylan Drotman himself answering questions on robotics research and of course his life: 

Can you first of all tell us when you became enamored with Bioinspired Robotics?

I found out about bioinspired robotics while I was getting my master’s degree. Before I learned about this topic, I had seen videos and pictures of robots that looked like animals, but I did not realize bioinspired robotics was an entire field of study.

Your recent work on pneumatic circuits for controlling soft-legged robots proves that we are close to intelligent mobile robotic systems that don’t require electronics, how far am I correct in holding such a view?

I think there will be interesting technologies emerging in the next couple of years, however, I think we are far away from having very sophisticated electronics-free robots. In the publication you mentioned, we showed a simple example of a robot that can walk and sense the environment without any electronics.  In the future, I could imagine that simple tasks (e.g. continuous periodic movements) could be controlled with electronics-free schemes while other more sophisticated tasks (e.g. mapping and localization) could be handled using electronic components.

Will soft robots like Disney’s Baymax populate the future than stiffer and metallic Terminator or a Transformer?

It is possible. Robots will most likely end up having some combination of rigid and soft components like human beings. I personally would want to interact with a robot that moves and feels like Baymax in case the robot starts to malfunction.

Should we build robots that feel human emotions? Let’s say somewhere in the future, if we are able to combine sensory perception and the thinking process then?

I think robots should show emotions (e.g. change facial expressions to show mood) to inform people about how they should and shouldn’t interact with robots. I think teaching a robot to feel human emotions would probably lead to many undesirable robotic behaviors.

‘Robots building robots’, does it sound scary to you?

Not at all. Robots building robots can help to solve challenging technological problems more efficiently. I think we are very far away from a time when “robots building robots” would become a problem.

I’m curious to know your thoughts on Musk’s Neuralink chip. Can there ever be sync between the interface of two operating systems, that is, digital information (computer) and memory (human brain)?

I think so. Once researchers understand how different neurons store information, then neural messages can be used to communicate between a physical operating system and a nervous system. Similarly, researchers in robotics have translated electrical signals from muscles and nerves into physical movements which is useful for controlling bionic prosthetic limbs.

What are your other interests besides robotics?

If I am not building robots, I am usually exercising. I like surfing, hiking, lifting weights, and playing softball/baseball.

Someone comes up to you and says, “I wanna be just like you. I want to be a Robotics Engineer”.  What advice would you give?

I would tell them to spend time learning new skills each day and eventually you will become the expert in that topic. I would also say that they should look up their dream job to figure out what skills they need to learn to get that job.

Quick bits:

What is your favorite movie quote?

“They’ve done studies, you know. 60% of the time, it works every time.”- Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy

If you could get yourself anything, what would you get?

Nontangible item: Fulfillment

Tangible item: Paid vacation with friends and family

What would you do on Mars for fun?

Backflips. Definitely Backflips.

What will your TED Talk be 10 years from now?

In 10 years, I hope that I will be able to talk about a robot/device that I designed that had a significant positive impact on society.

What books should I read in 2021?

I recently read Zero to One by Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel. This book was published in 2014 but I think the information in this book is still very applicable today.  This book is about building long-enduring businesses for technologies that are completely new rather than building businesses focused on improving existing technologies (i.e. going from 0 to 1 rather than 1 to n).

That was indeed an awesome interview. I can’t thank you enough Dr Drotman for your time. We look forward to visit you again and see more of your innovative research. Till then, we wish you all the very best for your future endeavor.

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