Personalities of IAM Robotics: Regis Hoffman
Senior Test Engineer
An experimentalist at heart, Regis Hoffman has always been interested in how computers interact in the real world. After building his first “robot” as a kid, he’s pursued a career in robotics in a variety of roles and industries. But it was when he had the opportunity to work on radiation therapy products that he discovered his true passion – making robots reliable.
“I came to understand the importance of reliability and became interested in how I could combine the reliability concerns in radiation oncology with the robotics world.” Now at IAM Robotics, Regis says what he likes most about his work is that “we understand that the reliability of our robots is critical and it gives me the opportunity to bring my training from the radiation oncology field to this arena.”
We recently talked to Regis about his career, his passions outside tackling difficult projects, and what he’s looking forward to at IAM Robotics.
What is the coolest project you worked on or contributed to prior to joining IAM Robotics?
While working at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, I worked on a NASA-funded project that sought to develop new technologies to explore the surface of the planet Mars. NASA decided that if you are going to spend $1B to launch a Mars rover, it had to be very capable of exploring the surface. The rover had to be able to traverse a 1-meter wide trench, negotiate over a 1-meter high boulder, and travel possible 30-degree slopes.
Ambler was a six-legged 19-foot tall Mars exploration robot and was the Proof of Concept that was developed, able to meet those requirements for traversability. In later years, NASA realized that may have been a bit overboard as the robot Sojourner was a much simpler wheeled robot.
Another interesting thing about the Ambler project is that it involved three major teams working together, which is unusual at a University, but not at CMU. There was a group that was the hardware or mechanism group, the planning group that had to figure out how you walk with six legs and what software is used for that, and the perception group that had to determine how to give information to the robot so it knows where it is and where to walk.
Prior to this project, I considered myself a programmer, but through my work with the Ambler project, I became a systems engineer. I realized that the sensor data wasn’t always correct and I had to design systems that would adapt. I also had the opportunity to work with a lot of interesting people on this project, and there was a lot of visibility around the project since it was funded by NASA. For instance, a National Geographic Explorer television show crew followed our group around for a week as we prepared for the final demonstration to NASA. It was really the first time I made a major contribution to a complex systems project.
What motivates you?
Making robots reliable. After I began working in robotics for a number of years, I changed career paths a bit and began working on products that were used in radiation therapy. It was a CMU spin-off company based in Pittsburgh that developed software and hardware for cancer treatments.
The mindset of that company was very different from what I was used to when working in robotics. In robotics, the question is, ‘Does the system work for the demo?’ But in radiation oncology, the question is, ‘Does this product work every day, all of the time?’
I came to understand the importance of reliability and became interested in how I could combine the reliability concerns in radiation oncology with the robotics world. That’s one of the things that I really like about IAM Robotics—we are interested in the reliability of our robots and it gives me the opportunity to bring my training from the radiation oncology field to this arena.
What is your go-to spot in Pittsburgh?
The Strip District is an area of Pittsburgh that is filled with eclectic individual shops, restaurants, and historical places. My late mother was born in the Strip District in the 1920s and it means a lot to me to walk the same streets that my mother walked, and where my grandmother once worked in a cork factory.
“Strip District” by jmd41280 is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
The Strip District also is becoming the hub of the new Pittsburgh, which is Roboburgh and is the home of Argo, Aurora, and Facebook. It has been transformed from a place where people didn’t want to live, to a place where people now want to live, work, eat, and play.
What is your favorite travel spot?
I love the Gulf Coast of Florida, including Siesta Key, Sanibel Island, and Fort Myers. I enjoy the warm water, warm breezes, and semitropical plants.
What is a quote that is a reflection of your personality?
“Plans are nothing; planning is everything.”—Dwight Eisenhower
How did you choose your career?
I am an experimentalist at heart and have always been interested in how computers interact in the real world. When I was growing up, my dad always had a bunch of tools, and he let me play with them. I remember that I built a robot that consisted of a wooden crate, four wheels from two old tricycles, and a head made from a plastic sherbet container stuck on a stick. I put two wooden arms on it and that was my model of a robot. Everyone thought it was really cool and I have been tinkering ever since.
I went on to study computational physics at Carnegie Mellon University and studied how to use computers in physics. And now at IAM Robotics, I work in test and quality assurance, which is experimenting with robots.
What are your hobbies and interests?
I am a very serious gardener and stamp collector. Unfortunately, it has been a difficult year for gardening vegetables due to the deer who somehow knew to keep socially distanced…I saw it for myself!
And I have learned so much history from collecting stamps. Over Thanksgiving last year, my son and I attended a stamp show in Monte Carlo and had the opportunity to attend a black-tie gala at the Grand Ballroom of the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo with the Prince of Monaco as the special guest…all because of stamps!
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be an engineer. I was always interested in science as I was growing up. When I was in high school, computers were not yet that big of a deal. But even then—before I even knew what the binary system was—a career evaluation test that I took as a freshman listed my number one career choice as computer science. I laughed. But I guess it was right, though. Even though I didn’t know anything about it at the time, I think the way a computer scientist thinks. From that time, I wanted to work in a field where computers interacted with the real world.
What is your favorite part about working for IAM Robotics?
Friendly, good people.
What do you think the future has in store for robotics?
They will become as ubiquitous as household appliances.
Thanks to Regis for sharing your unique path to IAM Robotics. We wouldn’t be leading the way in robotics without team members who are passionate about their work and committed to making a difference in the future of robotics. The best is yet to come.