Yuan Zheng: Celebrating 30 Years of Robotics Innovation
Respected internationally for his groundbreaking innovations in robotics, Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) professor Yuan Zheng announced his retirement from The Ohio State University this month.
In 1979 Zheng first entered the Electrical Engineering program at Ohio State as a student - a rarity for Chinese citizens at the time.
“There was only one Chinese student at the university, graduate or undergraduate. That was me,” Zheng said. “Today, there are over 4,000 Chinese students on campus.”
He said the university and the ECE department presented many opportunities for him, which only grew over the decades.
“When I was young, there were a lot of things happening in China, turmoil and revolution. I was lucky. Right after the revolution, I came to the United States," Zheng told dozens of faculty, friends, family and staff gathered at Dreese Labs Sept. 13 for his retirement party.
Only recently, Zheng said he looked around and realized all of his former professors had retired.
“So, it’s time for me to retire,” he laughed. “I’m not moving away. I will still be around. I will come back to work with you if there is an opportunity.”
Zheng’s retirement event was attended by former ECE department chairs leading back to the 1970s, including Hsien C. Ko who served from 1977 to 1990. Zheng became the sixth chair of the department in 1993, serving until 2004. Former ECE Chair Robert Lee also attended.
Current ECE Chair and Professor, Joel Johnson, said Zheng’s impact on the university and the department over the years is unquestionable.
“Without a doubt, Yuan is one of our most prominent educators, researchers and leaders that brought international recognition to Ohio State and our department,” Johnson said. “He brings a lot of passion and energy to our organization. His pioneering research contributions have been very important.”
Johnson said Zheng exemplifies excellence, whether through his efforts in teaching, research, public service, or mentorship.
Zheng earned his PhD from Ohio State in 1984, with a dissertation entitled, “Modeling, Simulation and Control of 3D Robotics Systems with Applications to Biped Locomotion.”
After a stint at Clemson University, he came back to Ohio State ECE in 1989 as a professor, becoming chair soon after.
Johnson said Zheng’s leadership even includes changing the name of the department from “Electrical Engineering” to “Electrical and Computer Engineering,” as well as initiating a “golden age” of faculty recruitment efforts at the time. Johnson himself was part of those hires.
Zheng is internationally-recognized in the field of robotics, known for developing the SD1 and SD2 bipedal robots early in his career at Ohio State.
“These were the first bipedal robots in the United States,” Johnson said, “and they made a profound impact that contributed to the humanoid robotics industry. Their development required a lot of brilliant insight into the design and control, combined with practical engineering skills.”
Throughout his career, Zheng continued to advance robotics, including his current work to create robots that track and follow subjects for elderly care, as well as disaster recovery.
Johnson said Zheng’s research work also delves into computer vision and radar.
“It’s an impressive accomplishment for someone in our discipline,” he said.
Throughout his career, Zheng published more than 100 journal papers, over 200 conference papers, and received numerous awards and recognitions, such as being named an IEEE Fellow in 1997, as well as earning multiple patents.
One of those patents, the Circular Wave Drive, he designed to revolutionize the movement of modern robotic joints. Now licensed, the CWD technology has already raised considerable interest from the robotics industry.
Because of this invention, Zheng received the 2016 Innovator of the Year Award from Ohio State.
The longtime professor also expanded global experiences for students by partnering with universities in Shanghai.
“We know him to be a very patient, helpful and kind person, who still maintains his focus on scholarship,” Johnson said. “His leadership is oriented toward pushing things forward, achieving challenging goals and teamwork. All of us at the department have benefited from his mentorship and advice. You can always count on him to put the interests of the department first.”