NURobotics Team Goes from Dormant to One of Largest Groups on Campus

While the NURobotics team was not active during the pandemic, it has grown to 470 members and won the Phoenix Award in April for its rapid ground-up redevelopment and community engagement.

Northeastern club went dormant during the pandemic. Now it numbers 470 members and eight robots.

Main photo: Northeastern computer engineering student Philip Andress makes adjustments to the cable driven robot in the Richards Hall lab where NURobotics meets and works. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

How do you reopen a student club after COVID-19?

Ask Ethan Holand, president of NURobotics. Little more than a year after he relaunched the organization—dormant during the pandemic—its membership has swelled to 470 students who are developing eight robots.

Since February 2021, Holand has viewed the renewal of NURobotics as a collaborative opportunity to create the club of his dreams.

“Robotics can be extremely intimidating because it’s an intersection of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and software engineering,” says Holand, a third-year mechanical engineering student. “You can only do it in a team format because no one has all that knowledge.”

The Northeastern Student Life Awards recognized NURobotics with a Phoenix Award in April for its rapid ground-up redevelopment and community engagement.

“The challenge is fantastic,” Andress says of his work at NURobotics. Photos by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

“I knew that there was a need for team-based projects for students to gain experience, build bonds with their peers, and learn how to work on—or lead—a team,” says Holand, whose goal was to create an accessible club.

Students of all educational backgrounds are welcome, with zero entry fees or experience required. To help ease the learning curve, the club created a free, weekly, introductory course on robotics.

“One of the first things we did is figure out how are we going to teach new members?” Holand says. “The course has been a pillar of our program for people who have never worked in robotics before.”

Teammates from right to left Ethan Holand, Jack Wilkins and Samuel Hibbard explain components of the PARSEC (Percussive And Rotary Surveying & Extracting Carousel) robot that they built for a NASA competition, outside the Gainsborough Garage.

Club president Ethan Holand (right) led the relaunch of NURobotics. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

The course was overseen last fall by Chloe Wilson, a third-year mechanical engineering student who joined the club with no experience in robotics. She says the course helped her get up to speed and gave her management experience.

“It’s a great infrastructure that offers a lot of resources for growth and development, and you get to be exposed to different disciplines on the software side as well as the mechanical side,” Wilson says of the club overall. “Even if you don’t know anything, or you don’t have much experience, a lot of our project leads are willing to help you.

“It’s a very collaborative, supportive environment,” adds Wilson, who now leads media and communications for the club. “People just love to talk about robotics here, so you can ask anyone questions and they’re usually very happy to help you.”

Mahdi Edraki (left), a mechnical engineering graduate student, Naomi Cooke (center), a mechanical engineering student, and Michael Ambrozie, a mechanical engineering and computer science student, deploy the combat robots they’ve built at the Richards Hall lab. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Members contribute to eight ongoing projects—ranging from Chess Robot to Underwater Robotics—while also proposing new ventures.

“For Project Mitosis, the vision is to make a self-replicating robot,” Holand says. “You start off by making a 3D printer that prints itself. So then the question is, how do you get the filament, the material, to continue that cycle? We had some people who had a biology background grow algae and turn it into plastic and use that to make the printer. Because our club is open, we can create opportunities like that.”

Naomi Cooke, a third-year mechanical engineering student, joined with Wilson and Holand in helping to revive the club. She serves as a course instructor, project lead of the combat Robotics team, and a subteam lead on Robot Dog, a machine of 12 moveable joints that requires linear algebra and inverse kinematics to direct each paw to a precise location.

“We have three subteams, and then subteams within those subteams. So there’s so much to learn,” Cooke says. “And then you can go to the other teams and ask questions—or ask if you can help them. They can help you learn how to do something that’s completely left field of what you’re knowledgeable of.”

Philip Andress, a fourth-year computer engineering student, spent two years at the U.S. Naval Academy before transferring to Northeastern during the COVID-19 pandemic. He joined the club last fall and launched the Suspension Robotics project, which operates overhead, maneuvering along a cabled framework hung from the ceiling of the fourth-floor lab at Richards Hall.

The Northeastern Robotics Club went from an inactive group during the pandemic to one of the largest engineering clubs on campus, culminating in the 2022 Phoenix Award at the Student Life Awards recently. Photos by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

“The most interesting and challenging thing about the cable robot is that there are very few examples,” says Andress, who knows of a couple dozen such installations around the world. “Unlike some other challenges, we can’t Google it or see a YouTube video. For all of our problems that we have to solve, we either independently work with a whiteboard or read an incredibly hard-to-digest 40-page math paper.”

Andress says the work has inspired him to pursue a career in the suspension robotics field.

“The challenge is fantastic,” he says. “It really stretches the brain.”

Holand created an organizational structure that has enabled the club to grow efficiently. That rise is expected to continue in 2022-23 as Cooke and Wilson take over as co-presidents.

“We’ve been doing a reflection phase where we’re looking at every aspect we put together over the past two years,” says Holand, who next month will begin a co-op at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, helping to build robots for missions to Mars and other planets. “We want to make sure everyone who joins the club can get the experience that they want.”

Northeastern computer engineering and computer science major Sharwin Patil and mechanical engineering students Ethan Holand and Ethan Muhlon examine the Vex-U robot in Richards Hall. Photos by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

by Ian Thomsen, News @ Northeastern