Winner: Rick Cory
A high-school drop-out and struggling rock band drummer, Rick Cory was working in a DIY store when he discovered that it was possible to earn a living from his dream job - designing robots - which he had loved from an early age
It was when Rick Cory realised that his teenage dreams of being a rock star were probably not going to happen that he decided he wanted to design robots for a living. The Star Wars fanatic was stacking shelves in Home Depot, having flunked high school, and playing drums in a band in the evenings. But he knew he needed a proper career.
"I was never interested in the academic side at school and I didn't do well, but there is no motivation like living in the real world" says the Californian. "I had been into robots since I was eight or nine years old and when I realised people got paid for designing them, I knew that was what I wanted to do."
Cory: his PhD theses contained "breakthrough research" into flying robotics
A decade or so on and Cory has just been awarded his PhD from one of the USA's top academic institutions after completing his dissertation on flying robots. He has also landed a position with Walt Disney's Imagineering Research business, and at the Flightglobal Achievement Awards ceremony held at the Farnborough air show yesterday was named Boeing Engineering Student of the Year.
His journey from Orange County hardware store to Massachusetts Institute of Technology doctorate has been one of determination and passion for robotic technology, something he says was instilled in him watching science fiction movies when he was eight or nine-years-old. It concluded in June with the publication of his PhD thesis and what the judges described as "breakthrough" research in unmanned flight. The paper contained the first successful experimental demonstration of dynamic perching landing with an unmanned air vehicle, something birds can do but had never before been accomplished with a fixed-wing aircraft.
The journey started back in the late 1990s with Cory deciding he had to get some qualifications. He went to his local library and immersed himself in books on physics and maths over a summer. That allowed him to pass the entrance exams for community college. Once there his straight As meant he could transfer after two years, with a scholarship, to the University of Southern California to study computer science and engineering.
A professor who specialised in human robotics took him under his wing and his enthusiasm developed into an academic interest in the field. He began working on projects of his own and after graduating in 2004 with a bachelors degree, landed a six-month placement with a technology laboratory in Japan, where he continued his work on humanoid robots. He also did a stint at NASA in Houston on a project to design a robot to go into space.
He was accepted for a masters at MIT, the leading centre for robotics research - "There was nowhere else I wanted to go" - where he teamed up with another academic, later to become his PhD advisor, Russ Tedrake. Tedrake was doing research into how various aspects of bird flight could be replicated on unmanned flying vehicles. One of the biggest challenges was understanding the precise complex aerodynamics of how a bird controls its wings to land on a perch.
The two-and-a-half years Cory spent on his masters were spent largely, he says, trying to "understand what the problem was". For his PhD, he took the process further, looking at post-stall aerodynamics, turbulent flow and look-forward non-linear feedback control.
The judges were highly impressed. "Typically this level of complexity could only be handled by a larger super computer if the motion of the manoeuvre could be modelled at all," they said. "Instead, Rick's out the box approach for developing the needed control laws, by experimentally studying the fundamental mechanisms needed for a successful perching landing in a windtunnel, which he specially designed to help for this application, allowed him to solve the problem in a much more simple and elegant way. By using this innovative approach he was able to create the control algorithms at a level that they could be run on a small micro- processor carried by a miniature UAV.
"The impact of his work in the near term will be in the UAV arena, where the perching landings are needed to perform surveillance and observation missions for government civil, and commercial applications. Currently perching missions for UAV are performed with helicopter type aircraft, which by their nature are not as energy efficient as fixed-wing vehicle.
"I had been into robots since I was eight or nine years old and when I realised people got paid for designing them, I knew that was what I wanted to do"
"In the longer term, it's difficult to predict what will result from Rick's work but we can be sure it will be significant. The ability to create machines that can perform in the physical world as well as animals and man can will undoubtedly have a major impact on our future. Today, we are only scratching the surface with our robots when it comes to abilities which man and animals perform effortlessly such as running, climbing, swimming, flying and playing sports."
Cory has not said farewell to the aviation industry. Although he cannot reveal details of his two-year post-doctoral assignment with Disney in Glendale, California, he says he will be "working on technology for the next-generation of entertainment robots", adding: "Remember, there are Disney characters that can fly."
After that, he will "look at what opportunities are available". It might even involve rock music again. "I took my drums to Boston and teamed up with some guys," he says. "We have just done our last show, but I'm keen to reconnect with my old band in California."
Boeing has paid tribute to the other candidates for this year's Engineering Student of the Year Award, who it says were a "very impressive group of new engineers with a very wide and diverse set of interests and work. They represent countries from around the world and have done work from the micro level, such as grapheme composite materials that are a single atom thick, to the macro level, such as the design of full scale aircraft."