Science Nonfiction: Mapping a New Market for Robotics Technology

For Jonas Cleveland, it all started with Short Circuit.

At the age of 28, Cleveland (ROBO’14) works at the leading edge of robotics technology. He collaborates with some of the field's most well-known names and has cofounded an exciting new tech company that could revolutionize the process of automated navigation. However, as lofty as the circles in which he travels are today, the origins of his passion trace back to a slightly less academic source: the 1986 cult classic starring Ally Sheedy, Steve Guttenberg, and, of course, a robot. "I saw Short Circuit as a kid," says Cleveland, "and when I saw the robot Johnny Five come to life, I knew at that moment I wanted to be involved in robotics."

Upon his graduation from Union County Magnet School, a highly competitive high school focused on STEM fields, the Plainfield, New Jersey native attended Carnegie Mellon University for his undergraduate work because "it’s a great place to go if you want to do robotics." However, as he gained extensive technical expertise in robotics during his time at CMU, Cleveland also started to consider a second, percolating interest: entrepreneurship.

After briefly working as a researcher at Carnegie Mellon, Cleveland selected Penn for his graduate studies, a carefully measured move with an eye not only on the Robotics program's technical strength in robot perception, but also on the practical nature of the curriculum. "The program [at Penn] just does an incredible job of preparing people for industry," he says. “I saw the coursework here when I came to visit friends. They weren’t only doing problem sets or papers, they were actually building things. That appealed to me."

Cleveland quickly made his mark in Penn’s General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Laboratory, developing technology related to computer perception and artificial intelligence. "He has the mentality of a scientist," says Kostas Daniilidis, Associate Dean for Doctoral Education and Director for Online Education at Penn Engineering. "He always wanted to understand why something works. What differentiates him from other students was that he is very independent in formulating research questions. He really generated his own ideas and pushed through them during his time here."


Cleveland had his research epiphany when a family visit to the American Museum of Natural History in New York turned into a squabble over the museum map and the family’s location. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is a problem.' There had to be an easier way to figure out where you were and how to get where you were going, especially when you weren't outdoors with access to GPS. Then I realized this was really a robotics problem as well."

The robotic mapping concept became a focus of Cleveland’s thesis work with Daniilidis and others in GRASP. After extensive research and progress, Daniilidis encouraged Cleveland to apply for the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program, a six-week business incubator offering guidance for and assessment of spinoff startup companies originating in NSF research. With Daniilidis on board as the technical mentor, Cleveland found his footing as the entrepreneurial lead on the I-Corps project. Ultimately, the collaboration led to a key patent and the cofounding of the LLC, Cognitive Operational Systems (COSY) in 2013.


COSY has numerous avenues in mind for the realworld application of its technology. The first is a guidance application that can perceive and process its surroundings and offer directions to a person who is blind or otherwise impaired in crowded or challenging spaces where WIFI and GPS are unreliable.

A trial run where a woman who is blindwas led through the crowds in Philadelphia’s Suburban Station was a success. “That was a really big moment for us,” he remembers. The possibilities for COSY’s technology do not stop there. Vijay Kumar, Nemirovsky Family Dean of Penn Engineering, and self-proclaimed "president of the Jonas Cleveland fan club,” helped connect COSY with retail giant Walgreens, and the startup is now working on technology that will allow robots to cruise Walgreens stores at night and perceive, organize and process information about product placement on shelves.

In August, the technology for this project earned a finalist’s award for “Best Application Paper” at the annual IEEE CASE 2015 conference in Sweden. The extension of the process is also rife with possibilities, says Kumar. “Imagine a robot that tells you, when you are 95, where you've misplaced your keys, or where the remote is, or what groceries have been delivered and where they are,” he says.

Now managing a small team at COSY, which is located in the new Pennovation Works site south of the main Penn campus, Cleveland is excited about the possibilities for both his company and the field in general. “The cool thing about robotics at this moment is that ideas that were once confined to science fiction are now becoming a reality,” he notes. “The timing for us is pretty perfect.”

With Cleveland helping to lead the way, it seems only fitting that a science fiction robot was where the whole process began.

View the original article in Penn Engineering magazine "Science Nonfiction" by Eric McCollom.

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