Oregon State University professors blend robotics and action on the mat

Cindy Grimm and other members of the Oregon State University robotics department traveled to Jefferson on a July morning to look at blueberries — research that one day could help them build robots that can gently prune the bushes without damaging the fragile fruit.

While a lot of that work is computer science and math, some of the delicate movements are inspired by Grimm’s decades in martial arts.

Grimm and her husband, Bill Smart, are co-owners of the Precision Martial Arts gym in Corvallis, which they purchased in December 2017. The gym teaches a variety of martial arts, including Brazilian jiu-jitsu, capoeira and a striking class inspired by many styles.

Grimm and Smart met in a martial arts class while at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where both received their master’s degrees and doctorates in computer science.

After about 12 years as assistant and associate professors at Washington University in St. Louis, they moved to Oregon in 2012 to be closer to Grimm’s family in Lake Oswego, taking positions at Oregon State University’s College of Engineering.

Grimm said martial arts has allowed her to better visualize how the human body works and how much power is put into fine motor skills.

“One of the things that’s really fascinating is understanding your body kinetics link to what you can do,” Grimm said. “Like, why do you punch that way? Like, why is it that stance matters? There’s a lot of physical mechanics and sensing and actuation that you do in martial arts that we’re trying to replicate in robotics.”

They have a ways to go. So far, Grimm said cheerfully, they are “failing miserably.”

Her blueberry-scanning project, using her background in computer modeling to imitate bat sonar to map a farm, underlines the difficulty of getting robots to do tasks that are relatively simple for humans.

Climbing up a ladder to pick fruits manually can be dangerous, but there’s also no mechanical alternative that can meet that need. Grimm ultimately hopes that robots can be used to pick apples and prune blueberry bushes.

Smart also researches robots and is currently working with Amazon to build robotic consumer products. Some of his research has focused on building self-driving wheelchairs, improving the effectiveness of robot signals, and using robots to facilitate treatment for Ebola virus.

“I’m not trying to revolutionize the world. … I just want to build systems to help people,” he said. “I’m helping other people in their careers, and I’m helping some people with robots, making the world a little bit better.”

For Smart, whose research doesn’t focus on motor skills as much as Grimm’s, martial arts serves as an escape from work rather than being directly connected to it.

“It’s been a really safe space where I can come and just not think about anything for a couple hours,” he said. “And I think that’s where the overlap is: the fact that they don’t overlap. They complement.”

Grimm said teaching martial arts to others is rewarding, but especially teaching young kids, many of whom she’s seen gain confidence through their practice.

Tyrone Angolia, an instructor at Precision Martial Arts, said the gradual nature of martial arts is valuable, especially for the younger ones.

“It’s a good thing to be able to set your mind to a goal and achieve the goal,” Angolia said. “That’s important for all ages, but for the kids especially. It’s easy enough to see it’s not instant gratification — it takes a while — but as long as you keep investing in yourself, you get better and better.”

The three of them believe martial arts can bring peace to the mind and body.

“It always makes my day when one of the parents or one of the regular students come up and they say, ‘Thank you for having this place,’” Grimm said. “That makes it all worthwhile.”

— Dakota Hill, McNary High School

— Karthik Krishnamurthy, Westview High School

This story was produced by student reporters as part of the High School Journalism Institute, an annual collaboration among The Oregonian/OregonLive, Oregon State University and other Oregon media organizations. For more information or to support the program, go to oregonlive.com/hsji.