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ISE welcomes new faculty member William "Bob" Norris


Madeleine Hubbard

After serving for eight years in the US 82nd Airborne Division, William “Bob” Norris started school at the University of Illinois ISE Department, majoring in General Engineering (since renamed Systems Engineering and Design in Fall 2016). While attending school full time, Norris managed to also work full time as a security guard at Frasca International, and raise a family. 

Today, Norris is returning to work at the University of Illinois with ISE doing research while teaching classes in systems engineering and autonomous vehicles. 

Norris credits his job at Frasca International as sparking his interest in General Engineering, where his focus was control systems. At Frasca, Norris says he “saw engineers put together flight simulators that had large hydraulic motion bases controlled by a mini joystick.”

Norris earned his master’s degree from ISE in 1997 and his PhD from the College Engineering in Agricultural Engineering in 2001.  While in grad school, he worked at NCSA developing applications in virtual reality for Caterpillar. After finishing his PhD, Norris went on to work for John Deere as their first roboticist.  While working for Deere, Norris earned his MBA from Duke University and earned 14 patents in autonomous systems technologies

Norris’s talents shone at Deere, when he helped create and produce the R-Gator and was involved with the Tango E5 robotic mower.  Norris had roles as lead engineer, program manager, and business manager for the research and then the product program. He says his project group “wanted to create a vehicle that could travel with [soldiers] autonomously, and carry their equipment.” Soldiers often have to carry well over 150 pounds of equipment during long missions. The R-Gator would prevent soldiers from becoming fatigued, and allow them to focus on the mission at hand.  

After leaving John Deere, Norris used his skills in engineering and business to start up a consulting company—Robust Smart Control Solutions, LLC—aimed at high tech business opportunities. Norris says his favorite part of working with autonomous vehicles is that “there’s a variety of technical and business work and challenges building new markets. You also get to meet with a lot of people and work with cutting edge technologies.”  Norris has been involved in multiple commercial, security industry and government related robotic/autonomous system projects.

Norris says that there are still a few problems preventing autonomous vehicles from being on the roads. Norris asks, “How capable do autonomous systems have to be relative to a human operator?  The safety requirements are going to be much more stringent for autonomous systems due to legal ramifications.” He says, another issue with autonomous vehicles is the cost of sensor systems and that sensor systems – even with sensor fusion approaches, are imperfect. For the near future, Norris predicts a “car may drive itself, but there needs to be somebody there to take over if there is an issue.”

While at ISE, Norris says the opportunities offered to him were tremendous. Having worked on the cutting edge in virtual reality and then autonomous systems, he explains, “The biggest benefit [of GE] has been being able to analyze problems from a broad systems perspective, with the ability to focus in on at the ground level."