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Episode 44: Jerry Pratt discusses the evolution and future of humanoid robots and bipedal walking

Today’s podcast features Ken Ford and Dawn Kernagis interviewing their colleague, Dr. Jerry Pratt, a senior research scientist at IHMC who heads up the institute’s robotics group. In 2015, Jerry led an IHMC team that placed second out of 23 teams from around the world in the first-ever DARPA Robotics Challenge. IHMC also placed first in the competition which featured humanoid robots that primarily walked bipedally and first among all U.S. teams.

Jerry is a graduate of MIT, where he earned a doctorate in electrical engineering and computer science in 2000. As a graduate student at MIT, Jerry built his first robot which was also one of the first bipedal robots that could compliantly walk over rough terrain.

As you will learn in today’s interview, it was called “Spring Turkey” and is on display in MIT’s Boston museum. The second robot he built as a graduate student was called “Spring Flamingo,” and is on display in the lobby of IHMC’s Fred Levin Center in Pensacola.

After graduation, Jerry and some MIT colleagues founded a small company called Yobotics, which specialized in powered prosthetics, biomimetic robots, simulation software and robotic consulting.

He joined IHMC in 2002 and has become a well-known expert in bipedal walking. His algorithms are used in various robots around the world. Recent work on fast-running robots has resulted in ostrich-inspired running models and robot prototypes that are currently believed to be the fastest running robots in the world.

Jerry has six U.S. patents and was inducted into the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame in 2015. He lives in Pensacola with his wife Megan and their two children. He and he wife founded a science museum called the Pensacola MESS Hall, which stands for math, engineering, science, and stuff. The MESS Hall is a hands-on science museum for all ages that just celebrated it's five-year anniversary.

Show notes:

4:37: Ken and Dawn welcome Jerry to the show

4:54: Dawn asks Jerry to talk about the time he once stole a science book from school.

5:45: Dawn asks Jerry to discuss his first invention, the knockout keyless door lock, that he came up with for his tree fort when he was a teen.

6:21: Dawn asks Jerry if he recalls his first computer program he wrote on the Commodore 64.

6:47: Ken comments on how in addition to writing computer programs, Jerry had an interest in electronics, particularly Heathkits.

7:08: Dawn discusses how Jerry played a lot of sports as a kid, going on to run varsity track and cross country at MIT.

7:46: Dawn asks Jerry if it was as an undergrad or a graduate student that he first became interested in robotics.

8:20: Ken discusses the first two robots Jerry put together: Spring Turkey then Spring Flamingo. He then asks Jerry to talk about the machines and how he came up with the names.

9:16: Dawn comments on how a few of Jerry’s colleagues have mentioned that much of our understanding of dynamic walking is still based on some of the original work Jerry did at MIT, and she then asks Jerry to talk about that work.

10:03: Ken asks Jerry to talk about how he and his wife, Megan Benson, met.

10:54: Ken asks Jerry to discuss the experience of co-founding Yobotics, which specialized in powered prosthetics, biomimetic robots, simulation software, and robot consulting, with his colleagues at MIT.

11:36: Dawn discusses the growth of robotics at IHMC since Jerry joined the team. She then asks Jerry to give a summary on the types of robots that he and his colleagues have been working on over the last 14 years at IHMC.

13:55: Dawn asks Jerry to talk about the books he often reads on organizational culture and teambuilding.

15:08: Dawn comments on how she has heard that Jerry is one of the worst motivational speakers ever and asks if it is true.

15:28: Ken comments on all of the work that Jerry and the IHMC team put into the DARPA Robotics Challenge, where they placed second in the world and first among th...