Mason's new MARC focuses on autonomy, robotics, and responsible AI


Industry executives, campus leaders, faculty, donors and alumni attended the official opening of George Mason University’s College of Engineering and Computing’s Mason Autonomy and Robotics Center (MARC), but the star of the show was a Boston Dynamics quadruped. As the bright yellow doglike robot held one end of the green ribbon, George Mason University President Gregory Washington, MARC co-directors Professors Missy Cummings and Jesse Kirkpatrick cut. Afterward, the quadruped roamed the event, opening doors for attendees and demonstrating its capabilities.

The event showcased Mason’s strength in important, emerging fields. In his welcoming remarks, Dean Ken Ball said, “MARC is the focal point for our research in autonomy, robotics, and AI. Mason truly is a pace-setter in these areas.”

Attendees explored the new facility in Mason’s Research Hall on the Fairfax Campus. The space includes a 1,649-square-foot, two-story aviary for testing drones, areas for lab experiments, faculty offices, collaboration and study areas, and a student lounge.

Three people are cutting a ribbon, one side of which is held by a robotic quadruped
Mason President Gregory Washington and MARC co-directors Missy Cummings and Jesse Kirkpatrick are aided by a Boston Dynamics "dog" in cutting the ribbon to open the center officially. Photo by John Boal Photography. 

During her remarks, Cummings addressed the evolving role of robots in society. “People don’t want autonomy to do their creative jobs,” she said. “They want to do their art, they want to write their stories…what they want is the robot maid. Once we hit world peak population in 55 years, we won’t have enough people to do the jobs we need. The dull, dirty, dangerous jobs are a great place for robots.”

Both Ball and Washington noted that in addition to being a leader in artificial intelligence (AI), the university is focusing on responsible AI, with a graduate certificate in that field launching in fall 2024.

“We’ve been at the forefront of a whole host of outcomes and technologies that have benefited this state and this region," said Washington. "Right here in engineering, we established the first-in-the-country cybersecurity engineering program, so there’s a real lineage of innovation here. Mason will be the only Virginia university to join more than 200 of the nation’s leading AI stakeholders to participate in the Department of Commerce’s initiative to support the development of trustworthy and safe AI.”

“We do autonomy, we robotics, we do AI…but we do it responsibly and that’s in our core,” said Kirkpatrick. “It’s in our principles, policies, practice, and people. It’s across the research enterprise, and it’s in our teaching. The leaders of today, tomorrow, and the day after have to get this right because it’s so absolutely critical.”

Students stand under a lighter-than-air "blimp" resembling an arcade claw
Students demonstrate their claw game-like device, named Skygripper, to be used in the upcoming Defend the Republic competition. Photo by John Boal Photography.  

Attendees explored the facility and talked to students about projects. Filling the MARC aviary for the event were student-designed “blimps.” These lighter-than-air creations will soon compete in Defend the Republic, an annual event in EagleBank Arena where the autonomous flying devices compete in a Harry Potter quidditch-like game to move a ball into a target hanging from the ceiling.

"Not just for engineering, MARC will be used by numerous colleges and departments across the university for many multidisciplinary projects. This is a collaborative space for our students to work,” said Ball. “And it’s really important they have the opportunity to work in close proximity to our faculty.”

MARC’s opening is another demonstration of Mason’s strength in STEM, which attracts numerous corporate partners. Venkat Potapragada of 22nd Century Technologies attended the event and said, “I’m here because this is a strategic relationship for us and a key component of our overall growth strategy. We depend on talent ,and Mason will help us achieve our growth goals. In the D.C. region, Mason is a name to be reckoned with.”