Nityanand Varma left his native India in the early 1960s to do a master’s degree in civil engineering at the University of Waterloo. Now a proud alumnus, he and his family are helping the university grow in a way he would never have imagined possible via a $1-million contribution to fund a new professorship in robotics.
“It’s an arc, a journey, that I think is important to share,” said Varma’s son Amar, a serial entrepreneur who also earned an engineering degree at Waterloo.
Notomista, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, was part of a team at the Georgia Institute of Technology that developed an autonomous device called the SlothBot, a slow-moving, solar-powered robot that takes environmental readings while moving through forest treetops on a wire.
He plans to advance that work at Waterloo, where he was attracted in part by the state-of-the-art RoboHub and its status as a shared resource for robotics researchers, to help understand and address urgent issues posed by climate change.
“Autonomy allows robots to explore environments which are hostile to humans, so they can be very useful for all of us,” Notomista said. “My goal is to enable robots to survive in these unknown, unpredictable environments. He is also optimistic about the potential of long-duration autonomous robots to make a difference in fields as diverse as agriculture, traffic monitoring and space exploration.
“The idea is for the robots to be resilient to environmental conditions, as well as unexpected failures of the robots themselves, by leveraging their structures as well as their control algorithms,” Notomista said.
The untapped potential of robots to improve human lives was at the heart of the donation by the Varma family. So, too, was a desire to give other students the educations and opportunities Nityanand and Amar benefited from. He sees the new professorship as a testament to the hard work and determination of his parents and is hopeful it will have a lasting impact on both future students and the field of robotics.
“To the extent that robotics can make human life better, we want to support that as a family,” Amar said. “We feel like this will help.”