Penn Engineering Launches PERCH, a New Research Facility at the Pennovation Center

Evan Lerner | elerner@seas.upenn.edu | 215-573-6604
Monday, April 11, 2016

The School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Pennsylvania has launched PERCH, the Penn Engineering Research and Collaboration Hub, a new research facility in the forthcoming Pennovation Center.

As the centerpiece of Pennovation Works, Penn’s 23-acre hub for innovation, research and entrepreneurialism, the Pennovation Center advances Penn President Amy Gutmann’s vision for the University and the goals of impact, innovation and inclusion outlined in the Penn Compact 2020. Integrating knowledge across disciplines, the Center will bring researchers and students from across Penn together with private-sector tenants to promote innovative exchange, foster entrepreneurship and economic development and support impactful research and discovery. 

At PERCH, faculty, staff and students will pursue fundamental research on robotics, embedded systems, the “Internet of Things” and other emerging domains of interdisciplinary science and engineering. This intellectually collaborative environment will accelerate the translation of fundamental engineering discoveries into useful technologies with broad applications and will develop products with immediate social and technical value.        

“Our faculty and students are the agents of innovation, developing the fundamental knowledge and creating novel technologies.” said Vijay Kumar, the Nemirovsky Family Dean of Penn Engineering. “PERCH will bring together researchers and entrepreneurs to improve the lab-to-market pipeline and enhance the ecosystem for technology innovation in Philadelphia.”

The first researchers moving to PERCH are from Engineering’s General Robotics Automation Sensing and Perception, or GRASP, Lab. GRASP is not a physical space but the collaborative intersection of three Engineering departments: Electrical and Systems Engineering, Computer and Information Science and Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics. Faculty from the Penn Research in Embedded Computing and Integrated Systems Engineering, or PRECISE, Center will also be participating in PERCH activities.

Comprising the third floor of the Pennovation Center, the PERCH facility provides a newly equipped home base for several integrated multidisciplinary projects with students and faculty from three engineering labs. It also establishes a hub for a growing array of collaborations involving the broader PERCH community, bringing expertise intersecting with, and ranging far beyond, the field of robotics.

“PERCH offers our students rich opportunities for interaction with researchers across disciplines,” said Kathleen Stebe, Penn Engineering’s deputy dean for research and innovation and the Richer & Elizabeth Goodwin Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. “It also provides them with a chance to develop in an entrepreneurial setting and to collaborate with business and industry members working in the Pennovation Center or at Pennovation Works.”

Daniel Koditschek, the Alfred Fitler Moore Professor of Electrical and Systems Engineering, will be the inaugural director of PERCH. The Kod*Lab, which develops legged and otherwise biologically inspired robots, such as RHex, Minitaur and Jerboa, will be among the research groups moving to the new site, benefitting from the enhanced indoor and new outdoor robotics arenas. The Kod*Lab is also spinning off a company, Ghost Robotics, that focuses on robots with tactile senses.

Mark Yim, professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics and director of the Integrated Product Design program, and his ModLab is the second group that will call PERCH home. ModLab projects include modular robotic systems that can rearrange themselves to adapt to different environments and tasks, underactuated flying and swimming systems, simple low-cost robotic arms and devices for health and elder care.

Kumar’s own research lab, the Multi-Robot Systems Laboratory, MRSL, which focuses on creating autonomous ground and aerial robots, on designing bio-inspired algorithms for collective behaviors and on robot swarms, will also partially move into PERCH. MRSL will make extensive use of the indoor infrared motion capture system, as well as the new, netted outdoor arena.

Other Penn Engineering faculty, with expertise in distributed robotic systems, computer vision and robotic perception and embedded systems for medical devices, will have a collaborative presence within PERCH. They include:

  • Kostas Daniilidis, associate dean for doctoral education and professor in the Department of Computer and Information Science.
  • Daniel Lee, the UPS Foundation Professor in the Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering, and Director of the GRASP Lab, with secondary appointments in Computer and Information Science and Bioengineering
  • Insup Lee, the Cecilia Fitler Moore Professor in the Department of Computer and Information Science and director of the PRECISE Center with secondary appointment in Electrical and Systems Engineering.
  • Rahul Mangharam, associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering.
  • George Pappas, the Joseph Moore Professor and chair of the Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering, with secondary appointments in Computer and Information Science and Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics.
  • Jianbo Shi, professor in the Department of Computer and Information Science.
  • Camillo J. Taylor, professor in the Department of Computer and Information Science.  

 Beyond internal collaborations, the presence of PERCH in the Pennovation Center and larger Pennovation Works community is designed to foster closer relations with Penn Engineering’s spin-off companies and with other members of the business community.

Several GRASP spin-offs are already located at Pennovation Works.

COSY, which was founded by Daniilidis and former graduate student Jonas Cleveland, uses computer vision technology to provide GPS-like turn-by-turn navigation for indoor spaces. Exyn Technologies, founded by Kumar, and KMel Robotics, founded by former graduate students Alex Kushleyev and Daniel Mellinger, both develop technology for aerial vehicles. KMel is now Qualcomm Research Philadelphia, part of Qualcomm Technologies Inc. 

Set for completion in August, the Pennovation Center will also house a suite of services and space for entrepreneurs and researchers from within the University and beyond. The 58,000 square-feet Center will include a full service business incubator; basic wet and dry laboratories; private office and collaborative workspaces for companies, entrepreneurs, inventors and their teams; and start-up garages. 

PERCH features a larger motion-capture camera system for tracking and planning robots' movements. (Photo: Rebecca Abboud)

PERCH features a larger motion-capture camera system for tracking and planning robots' movements. (Photo: Rebecca Abboud)

While labs are still in the process of moving in, some students have already begun working at PERCH. (Photo: Scott Spitzer)

While labs are still in the process of moving in, some students have already begun working at PERCH. (Photo: Scott Spitzer)