UCSD's Jacobs School of Engineering: Wikicommons/Carlos Overstreet

By Gary Robbins, The San Diego Union-Tribune

UC San Diego has recruited a prominent engineer who says he’ll try to make the school’s young robotics program so good that San Diego will become known as “Robot Valley.”

Henrik I. Christensen was lured away from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, where he created one of the nation’s most respected robotics research centers.

Christensen, 53, has been named director of UC San Diego’s new Contextual Robotics Institute, which focuses on developing machines that can anticipate and meet people’s everyday needs, including caring for the elderly.

“I want to build a research institute that, ideally, will be in the top five in the world five years from now,” said Christensen, who helped the Obama administration develop a national roadmap for robotics research. “Why not see if we can make San Diego ‘Robot Valley’. “

He said the university will shoot for that goal by heavily collaborating with such local institutions as Qualcomm, Northrop Grumman, General Atomics, General Dynamics and SPAWAR (Space and Naval Warfare Systems.)

Christensen’s appointment was welcomed Thursday by Frank Flores, an executive at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, a leader in unmanned aerial vehicles.

“Northrop Grumman shares UCSD’s vision to develop robotics technology that will safely solve problems in ways we can only imagine today,” Flores said. “Dr. Christensen brings a tremendous talent and vision to UCSD that will inspire and motivate students to new levels of innovation.”

Christensen earned a doctorate in engineering at Aalborg University in Denmark in 1989 and went on to become a major figure in computer vision, advancing the way that machines perceive objects and their environment. He helped develop the navigation system for the world’s first autonomous vacuum cleaner. And he’s been a consultant for such major companies as Volvo, Boeing and iRobot.

He joined the Georgia Tech faculty in 2006 and became director of the school’s Center for Robotics and Intelligent Machines, which specializes in human-oriented robotics. In less than a decade, Christensen more than tripled Georgia Tech’s robotics funding, pushing it to $32 million.

UC San Diego brings in about $10 million a year in robotics, a figure that Christensen says can soon be doubled. He plans to better organize the school’s reseach efforts and seek bigger grants in areas like autonomous cars and flying machines, and robots for the home.

“My 80 year-old mother has never used a computer,” Christensen said Thursday. “I want to give people like her robots that they can easily use even though computers might not be part of their daily life. Robots that do things like bring coffee from the kitchen or get a person’s glasses from another room.”

Christensen was recruited by Albert Pisano, dean of UC San Diego’s Jacobs School of Engineering.

“We are very happy to have Henrik because he is in the very middle of the robot action across the nation,” Pisano said. “He is such a spark plug. He leaps into action, he gets things done. By every measure, he is a thinker and a doer.”

©2016 The San Diego Union-Tribune Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.