From Cars to Canines: Designer Nick Wirth's High Tech Adventures

Gary S. Vasilash

One problem that some people have is that if they are really good at something, they are made “manager” of that function and cease to be able to do what got them there. Nick Wirth is a designer. And he left one of the premier slots that an automotive designer can have—so that he could continue to design.

Nick Wirth seemingly had reached a pinnacle for automotive designers in the late 1990s. Wirth, who has a degree in mechanical engineering from University College London and who was, when so elected, the youngest Fellow of the Royal Institution of Mechanical Engineers, was the chief designer for the Benetton Formula team—that’s “formula” as in “Formula-One racing,” not Benetton sweaters and sportswear—from 1997-99. F1 is unquestionably the crème de la crème of auto racing (at least the people who are involved in it seem to think so). Arguably, it is in a rarefied class when it comes to automotive design and engineering of any type.


And in case you are wont to argue that last point, listen to Wirth: “Each F1 team has about 400 people for one car, one year.” (Maybe that’s a slight exaggeration. With an emphasis on slight.) And there is more than a little money behind their efforts: Wirth says the budget for a given team is in excess of $100-million per year. Realize that they are developing a vehicle that has a one-year life span (competitively speaking, that is). After that, it is obsolete (or simply not particularly competitive—and therefore, what’s the point?).

During his time with the team, Wirth worked on four cars. There were 65 engineers who were working for him. “Each was extremely specialized,” Wirth recalls. He explains that because of the rules of the series (i.e., the “formula”), the changes that could be made in a vehicle from one year to another are exceedingly incremental, such that the high degree of specialization was necessary.

There aren’t a whole lot of people who you are likely to encounter who have worked with the man who is undoubtedly the world’s greatest living driver, Michael Schumacher. Wirth is one of them. (And he agrees with the assessment of Schumacher as being the world’s greatest etc. Schuey was with the Benneton team when he won his first two driver’s championships.)

So why isn’t Wirth still a chief designer for an F1 team?
His answer is rather simple: He was spending more time undertaking administrative endeavors and less time sitting in front of a computer using Unigraphics design and engineering software from UGS. He was spending his time facilitating design, not designing. He is a designer. And so he left.

So what does a racecar designer do for a second act?
If you’re Nick Wirth, you form a company. To design robots. Not industrial robots that can weld and paint. No, these are robots that may walk around your house. Robots that are anthropomorphic, not tank-like. Robots that include technology that are part and parcel of F1 cars. Robots like... RoboDog.

RoboScience was co-founded by Wirth in December 1999. Although the company is located in Northamptonshire, England, Wirth explains that rather than having a large group of people working in one site (ala an F1 team), there is more of a virtual arrangement: people are connected via the Internet; they are working in a collaborative product development environment. (Because he became familiar with UGS systems during his Benetton days, he continues to use it. He explains, “Typically, when you work where people work with CAD five days a week, 10 hours a day, they tend to bitch about the product.” He didn’t find that to be the case with the Unigraphics software. And he notes that it has “solid” collaborative tools and interoperability with other CAD systems, so it fits the needs of RoboScience. The software is used for styling, surface modeling, mechanical design, packaging, and manufacturing.) As Wirth puts it, they keep the overhead low at RoboScience to maximize the ability to do R&D. He emphasizes the importance of providing tools to power the people involved. All of the manufacturing is outsourced; R&D and assembly are performed in what he describes as a “compact facility.”

But a robot dog that’s about the size of a Labrador (82-cm long, 67-cm tall, 37-cm wide)? Wirth, who is the technical director of RoboScience, explains he wanted to have something to prove the concept, something that would have multiple degrees of freedom but wouldn’t be off-putting—like a robotic crab.

So once the decision was made to go forward with a dog, Wirth and a team of seven developed RS01 RoboDog in seven months.

The robot has an exoskeleton construction: carbon fiber and Kevlar—just like an F1 car. This means that it is light, only 12 kg, but it is strong enough to lift 25 kg. It is a 16-degree-of-freedom robot; high-powered servos developed by RoboScience are used on 13 of the 16 joints; the dog not only makes canine-type moves, but also can do hand—er, paw—stands. Motion and color sensors are used so that the robot can interact with its environment.

The control is from an on-board PC that runs Windows ME. The robot can perform far more tricks than even the most talented circus dog. Yes, it responds to verbal commands (it can process 60 verbal instructions). But it can wirelessly connect with its owner’s PC and actually “read,” aloud, email in an Outlook Mailbox. (This I found to be, well, creepy.) According to Wirth, the robot “talks” TCP/IP.

RoboScience will not stick with dog designs. An intent is to move toward human-like models, which would have more utility than being able to read e-mail and to kick a soccer ball, as RS01 can do with facility. However, Wirth says that RoboScience is not about being a robot manufacturing company. “Intellectual property is what we’re all about.” And when he gets talking about racing, he does come to the point where he doesn’t discount the possibility that he might return to the circuit. . .someday.

Now he’s happy. He says he’s designing on a computer six to seven hours per day. Which is evidently what he’s really good at doing.