Robot Thomas Jefferson Welcomes Prospective Students at Engineering Open House

April 3, 2023
Student giving demo of Thomas Jefferson in robot form

“I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past,” Thomas Jefferson once wrote. These days, UVA’s founder is welcoming visitors in robotic form, as he did Saturday at an open house. (Photo by Tom Cogill)

At a University of Virginia open house Saturday, there were robots of all shapes, sizes and applications.

There was a robot with knobby tires that could pick up rocks on alien terrains, and a robot that could play rock-paper-scissors.

There was a robot that could perform military training, and a robot that could apply peaceful brush strokes to a person’s arm to relieve anxiety.

But one creation stood head and shoulders above the rest. Though not reaching its namesake’s 6-foot, 2-inch height, a robotic Thomas Jefferson greeted prospective School of Engineering and Applied Science students and their parents.

The third U.S. president and Founding Father, who also founded UVA, bowed and waved as families entered Link Lab. The automaton’s sensors cued to their motion. With a ponytailed wig, a face provided by smart phone and a torso draped in period-reminiscent clothing, the robot indeed made for a recognizable Jefferson.

Student giving demonstration of Jefferson robot
Showing hospitality to prospective students and their families – that’s how robot TJ rolls. First-year student and robot handler Andrew Vithoulkas tells visitors about the technology. (Photo by Tomonari Furukawa, UVA Engineering)

At ground level, however, it more closely resembled an upright vacuum cleaner. That is to say, the robot rolls instead of walks. Robotics company THK provided the foundational body.

“The visitors were loving it,” said first-year student and robot handler Andrew Vithoulkas. He helped train the robot. (As TJ would say, “We’re all learners.”)

Professor Tomonari Furukawa, who directs VICTOR Lab, is overseeing the project under the support of the Office of Naval Research. 

Importantly, after providing a welcome, the robot can lead people to where they need to go.

“We’ve developed escorting ability, which is very new,” Furukawa said. “Escorting is different from tracking from behind. The robot needs to be in front of the human and have an understanding of where the human is wanting to go.”

Final Exercises 2024, Learn More
Final Exercises 2024, Learn More

Over time, new Hoos will add to the robot’s capabilities, providing advanced detection and machine learning. That makes TJ a self-contained classroom for in-demand skills.

The team plans to roll out the robot again soon – to greet visitors at the Rotunda. When they do, TJ will wear more historically authentic garb, courtesy of the Drama Department.

Media Contact

Eric Williamson

University News Senior Associate University Communications