Finding My Passion For Robotics

Sep 27, 2018 By Frank Dellaert
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I was born and raised in Belgium, in the capital of Brussels. I went to a Jesuit school. Since Belgium is not very religious, there were only two Jesuits left. One of them was a math teacher who, seeing my interest in math, encouraged me to take additional classes so that I could pass the entrance exam for the university.

At school, I developed an interest in computers, which were just starting to come out when I was about 13. One of our family friends had a computer at their office -- a single one for the entire company. I went after hours and learned to program in Basic, one of the early computer languages.

When my parents bought me a Commodore 64, I loved playing arcade games, and even designed my own game in assembly language! I created a clone of Centipede – an arcade game where a centipede would come down the screen and you would have to shoot all the different parts.

College To Military Service

At university, I majored in electrical engineering, with a focus on graphics and computer vision.

Since all Belgians had to serve in the military for a year, I joined the Air Force after graduating college. My job was to program onboard computers on French Mirage fighter jets, to recognize the radar of other airplanes. These fighter jets use a technique known as frequency hopping whereby they transmit signals on constantly changing frequencies to avoid being detected and jammed by enemies.

Did you know that this clever technology was in fact invented by Hedy Lamarr, an actress-turned-inventor in 1940? It is used today in cell phones.

A Life-Changing Trip

After my service in the military, I joined a shipping company and worked in their IT department. I was quite bored and a chance visit with a friend in the United States changed my life. I was fascinated by how she was making a living working on cool research at MIT in the area of artificial life. Artificial life is the study of living things and processes, how they evolved from unicellular to multicellular organisms and trying to model their behavior.

I went back to Belgium and applied to universities in the U.S. I was accepted into a university in Cleveland, Ohio for a Masters and then did my Ph.D. at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). It was there that I found my passion for robotics, working in CMU’s world-famous robotics institute. I worked with some of the greatest researchers of the time, one of whom was Sebastian Thrun. He was my advisor, who then joined Google to research on self-driving cars, and now leads a startup that makes flying cars!

After my Ph.D., I decided to become a professor and join a university, teaching, doing interesting research in robotics, and inspiring other young students to find and follow their passion.