Aaron Ames '01 with robot CASSIE. (Photo provided by Caltech)

Moving Robotics Forward One Step at a Time

"It's a unique feeling. ... It started out on a piece of a paper and a pen, and it ended up making a robot walk."

Aaron Ames '01 likes a challenge. From entering St. Thomas as a student who didn't feel entirely prepared for college, Ames has transformed into an expert on the leading edge of robotics, operating a robotics lab out of Caltech and collaborating with entities such as NASA, Disney and Amazon. He credits St. Thomas with helping him begin that transformation.

Ames' current work with the DURUS project focuses on creating robotics that mimic human walking. He comes at his work from a math perspective, creating theories that are then played out in bipedal robots. The research has promising implications for more adaptable and individualized prosthetics.

"It's incredibly rewarding when you see a robot move according to something you came up with in your head," Ames said. "It's a unique feeling. ... It started out on a piece of a paper and a pen, and it ended up making a robot walk. When you show that video, or the robot runs because of the math, and people think that's cool, that's equally rewarding."

St. Thomas faculty see potential

Throughout high school, Ames said, many of his teachers didn't know what to do with him. When he entered college, he said he was an OK student who wasn't entirely certain what he wanted to major in. But he said that changed when he reached St. Thomas, because faculty here saw potential in him. He said that was incredibly striking and an experience he doesn't think he would have gotten at other schools.

"They looked at someone coming in with a nontraditional background and invested in that," Ames said. "The confidence they showed me influenced my understanding of myself."

Associate Professor of Engineering Jeff Jalkio helped hone Ames' interest in engineering and had donated robots to St. Thomas, which Ames ultimately used to start a robotics lab at the university. Professor of Mathematics Cheri Shakiban helped Ames land a summer research project, which turned into a conference presentation at the International Symposium on Analysis, Combinatorics and Computing and, later, a book chapter.

"She saw something in me, and encouraged me to go after it and gave me all the support I needed to get there," Ames said. He said those support factors made a big difference in his acceptance to the University of California, Berkeley. He earned his PhD after graduating from St. Thomas in three years with a Bachelor of Arts in mathematics and a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering.

At Berkeley, Ames found himself going toe to toe with those he described as the "best of the best," students who were coming from the top of their classes at Harvard and MIT, and had been training for this level of education far longer than he had.

"That being said, much like at St. Thomas, when I was put in a challenging situation, I really enjoyed it," Ames said.

Arriving in the world of robotics

Ames did his postdoctorate at Caltech, a school he loved because it blended the positive aspects he enjoyed from St. Thomas and Berkeley. He knew at the time that he would love a job there but also understood that the chances were "slim to none" because of how small the school is.

He took his first teaching job at Texas A&M; it was there Ames worked with NASA. He worked on Valkyrie, a humanoid robot designed to operate in degraded or damaged human-engineered environments. With the growing emphasis on robotics, Ames said things just "blew up from there" and he was on the "front wave."

Ames began working on his DURUS project at that point, which won high accolades at the DARPA Robotics Challenges (DRC) courses, where DURUS competed in an endurance contest by walking on a treadmill against other robots.

"If you spent any time watching the DRC, you probably noticed that all the robots walked like, you know, robots," wrote Evan Ackerman in a review on IEEE Spectrum. "The stereotypical quasi-static robotic gait is a side effect of the robot trying to keep its center of mass balanced above its feet, which is the way to go if you’re worried about falling over all the time.

"Humans don’t walk like this. Instead, we walk by falling forward intentionally, constantly catching ourselves by taking steps. DURUS walks the same way, thanks to software controls that provide a realistic level of confidence that the robot can walk continuously without falling over."

DURUS also received praise when featured on CNN.

"I had arrived," Ames said.

At that point, Ames had recently moved to Georgia Tech. But then Caltech came knocking.

"Caltech was a place I had always wanted to be," Ames said. "I couldn't say no."

A mentor for Rachel Gehlhar '16

Ames headed to Caltech in 2017, bringing his Advanced Mechanical Experimental Robotics (AMBER) Lab with him. While the research is obviously a profound part of Ames' academic career, he said at Caltech he likes that he can interact with students like professors did with him at St. Thomas.

"It has a personal touch," Ames said. "I talk to undergraduates here. I'm an adviser. ... For students who see the world differently, I can identify that in them and see potential, just like [St. Thomas faculty] did for me even if I didn't fit the standard mold."

Rachel Gehlhar '16 works on the prosthetic. (Photo provided by Caltech)

Rachel Gehlhar '16 works on the prosthetic. (Photo provided by Caltech)

Among those working for Ames is another Tommie: Rachel Gehlhar '16, who is pursuing her PhD. Jalkio had also served as a mentor to Gehlhar, and since her sophomore year at St. Thomas, she knew she wanted to join Ames' robotics lab. Like Ames, Gehlhar credited her close relationships with faculty and her research experience at St. Thomas for preparing her well.

"The unique things I got were because of connections with professors," Gehlhar said. "I got to lead research projects and got a better view of the research process and worked closely with professors. I learned more from them and got their perspective and feedback." That research including working with Professor of Engineering and Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship AnnMarie Thomas, whose mentorship she said was the most valuable part of her St. Thomas education and played a huge role in her attending Caltech.

At Caltech, Gehlhar is leading the prosthetics team, which is working on a leg device that would allow amputees to walk more robustly and adapt more easily. She is focusing on incorporating more sensors into the ankle and knee, so the prosthetic can have new behaviors and adapt to terrain. While Gehlhar loves the work itself, she says she also enjoys that this prosthetic has the potential to directly impact its user.

"It's exciting for me and other people to hear about my work," Gehlhar said. "We think about the human component in that work: How is the user going to be experiencing this? How can we take their needs and meet them with this technical field?"

In addition to several other robots, Ames' lab has no shortage of possible collaborations: He will collaborate with Disney Research on robotics; he spoke at Amazon's conference on machine learning in 2017; and he has a project with the Jet Propulsion Lab for the Mars 2020 mission.

Amidst all that, Ames also found time to give a Center for Applied Mathematics lecture at St. Thomas in September 2017.

"It was great coming back," Ames said. "Having been through a lot more since I left St. Thomas, it was cool to talk about what I've done and explain it to people who helped me get started."