Each week, staff writer Paul Wood chats with a high-tech difference-maker. This week, meet 20-year-old DARIO ARANGUIZ, a University of Illinois graduate student working as an intern at Petronics, which makes robotic animals, beginning with cat toy Mousr. He's also a competitive strength athlete.
What brought you to the University of Illinois?
I applied to UIUC on a lark, actually. I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin, and I had no intention to stay in the Midwest for school, but I fell in love with the campus when I came to visit. I had no idea I would like the school as much as I did. The engineering program is top-notch, of course, but the community is one of the richest and warmest I've ever been in. I'm still here six years later, albeit now for graduate school.
What made you decide to become a research intern at Petronics? Does it relate to your academic work?
It was luck! An offer from a different company fell through earlier in the year, and it just so happened that Petronics was looking for people. My academic work at the time focused on efficient use of IMUs, the chips in your phone that measure acceleration and rotation, and my technical background was on programming for low-complexity systems. It could not have been a better fit. I've since shifted my focus to robotics and navigation, but many techniques from my earlier work carry over.
What's new at Petronics? Do you have new products since Mousr?
We're doing everything we can to get Mousr out the door! I wish we could say more, but hopefully you'll hear more from us soon. Mousr is an artificially intelligent robotic mouse that can see and react to a cat's movement, just like real prey.
What does your work in particular do to help Mousr play with cats? And what is your role?
My research focus lately is enabling low-complexity robots like Mousr to understand and navigate their environment. A large amount of research in the robotics field is aimed at enabling robots to do tasks that humans find trivial — picking up objects, distinguishing between animate and inanimate objects, understanding spoken sentences, etc. One of these tasks is navigation. Pretend you were blindfolded and dropped in an environment you've never been in before, and you get a feel for what the robot is trying to do.
How do you see inexpensive robots entering our lives?
I think home robots are the next logical extension after movements like Internet of Things and Smart Home. The dream of having a constant stream of information about your house, your home, or your family's well-being is enticing, but also expensive. Rather than retrofit an entire house with sensors, why not let an (inexpensive) robot drive around your house instead? It would take some acclimation, but I think it could enable Smart Home-like sensing for everybody, not just people rich enough to afford larger systems.
Who else is on the Petronics team now?
The three co-founders, David Cohen, David Jun and Michael, were all Ph.D. engineering students from the same lab, and recently we have been filling out our roster with more specialized expertise. It's one of the most driven groups of people I've had the privilege to work with.
What's your best advice for someone who's starting up in robotics?
The best time to plant a tree was a hundred years ago. The next best time is today. In other words, don't let yourself be paralyzed by the enormity of what you don't know. If you're new to robotics, pick up a Raspberry Pi and start programming! Find a project that you can really sink your teeth into, like an automatic door lock system or a little RC car, and just go. Anything that gets you started is the right thing to do. And if you doubt yourself, there is a Zen quote my teacher likes to share. "To have the mind to enter this path is, indeed, to have an inherent teacher." By virtue of trying, you've proven that you can do it. The only requirement is that you keep trying.
Have you ever made any mistakes you've been able to learn from?
Oh, of course. Anyone who says they haven't made mistakes is lying. Lately, I've been working very hard not to misrepresent what I know and don't know. Working with such brilliant engineers, it's easy to just nod and agree when something goes over my head (which does happen frequently). Asking for an explanation is almost always the better thing to do. Also, I've learned that I don't do well without coffee. Never go to a morning meeting without coffee in hand.
What does Petronics do that nobody else can do?
Startups can have a difficult time entering a markets with big players like the robotics industry. Our co-founders have worked hard to find a niche that we are uniquely suited to fill, and speaking on my own behalf, I think our engineering talent is excellent. I would never have imagined such a small town could have so many talented people.
TECH TIDBITS ... with DARIO ARANGUIZ
Do you have an app you really love? I've been playing a mobile game called Puzzle and Dragons over the last few months. Think Bejeweled on steroids crossed with a trading card game. It's enthralling.
On Facebook I follow ... In my non-engineering life, I am a competitive strength athlete, and I love following the big names in the sport. Eddie Hall has been putting up some incredible numbers lately, and just a couple months ago, Ray Williams put up a world-record 1,052 pounds squat. Amazing.
Book or Kindle? What are you reading right now? I've been a Kindle convert for years. Right now, I'm going through Stephen King's "Dark Tower" series.
Do you have any wearable electronics? I bought a Moto 360 when it first came out, and I switched to a Pebble Time Steel about two years ago. I've become surprisingly dependent on the thing.
Entrepreneur hero? Steve Wozniak has always impressed me. I was fortunate enough to attend a talk of his when I was in high school, and someone asked about the crazier stories from his tenure at Apple. In the early days of computing, Steve Jobs had invited him to join a trade show (CES, for those familiar). Wozniak, being his prideful self, didn't want to come unless he had something to show for it. So he took a week off, locked himself in his room and produced the floppy drive.