By Chris Dawson In mid-March, the world came to a screeching halt. At least, that’s what it felt like to members of the Student Project Teams at Cornell Engineering. Campus closed and in-person work... Read more about Project Teams rise to the challenge
In MAE doctoral student Taylor Clawson’s original plan, he figured he would earn a Master’s degree while working for Northrop Grumman in Clearfield, Utah. At that point he had been working as a mechanical engineer at Grumman for two years. He was starting to understand that the people at Grumman who were able to take some measure of ownership over their work were those who had advanced degrees.
“At school I loved learning new things all the time,” says Clawson. “And I saw that I wasn’t being challenged at work the way I wanted to be—work was good, but I wasn’t learning enough.” So Clawson took the GRE and started to look around for a place to get a Master’s as he continued to work. “But then my scores came back and I started to rethink that plan,” says Clawson.
Clawson was married with one child at the time, so it was no light decision to stop working, move his family, and devote four-to-six years to a Ph.D. program. Clawson made a list of the top 25 mechanical engineering doctoral programs in the country. He and his wife eliminated some schools immediately simply because the cost of living was too high in those places. Cornell stayed on the list. “Ithaca had a lot going for it,” says Clawson. “It is an outdoor kind of town, very family-friendly. And Cornell has such a strong program in mechanical engineering.”
Clawson continues, “Another thing that drew me to Cornell was the robotics research and other interdisciplinary work going on here. While learning about the research happening at Cornell, I recall seeing research on insect flight, walking mechanics, and building robots which mimic those movements. This jumped out to me as something that is very interesting and which crosses over the traditional engineering boundaries I was familiar with.”
Clawson was offered admission and came to visit. “I was so impressed by the campus and especially by the people I met,” says Clawson. One of the people he met during that visit was Silvia Ferrari, the John Brancaccio Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering in the Sibley School. “We talked and she told me about her work and I was intrigued,” says Clawson.
Four years later, Clawson is a member of Ferrari’s Laboratory for Intelligent Systems and Controls (LISC) and the project that first caught his attention is now far along, partly due to Clawson’s work. Clawson’s focus over his time in LISC has shifted as the project has advanced. Currently, he is researching intelligent sensing and control in microrobotics applications, focusing particularly on neuromorphic sensors and spiking neural networks.
As the robotic insect Ferrari and LISC are working on flies, it will need to process visual images in real time. The “insects” are designed and built in Professor Robert Wood’s Microrobtics Lab at Harvard. Ferrari, Clawson, and others at LISC are working on sensing and control algorithms to enable autonomous flight in robots such as these. The weight constraints on this RoboBee are huge—the flying autonomous insect-like robot needs to be as small and light as possible. There is just no allowance for hardware that could process visual input using existing techniques. So Clawson is working on perception algorithms that will allow the RoboBee and other aerial vehicles to fly quickly and still avoid crashes.
In 2018, Clawson was awarded a Commercialization Fellowship from Cornell Engineering. He used the Fellowship to explore various companies’ needs for perception algorithms. “This fellowship was totally worth it,” says Clawson. “I learned so much about the commercialization process. I also learned something new about myself: I really enjoy working with a team. I didn’t know this before but it was great having this small team of three where we were all on the same level and all fully engaged in what we were doing. It was so good to have these other people to bounce things off of.”
Clawson hopes to graduate with his Ph.D. in the summer of 2019. After that the future is wide open. “I would like to see what it is like to start a company after graduation, but if that doesn’t happen, I am open to the right position in either industry or academia.”