MSR Lessons: From UAVs to Boston Dynamics

Michael Rencheck (MSR '20) discusses his journey from MSR to Performance Drone Works, to his current position as a robotics engineer at Boston Dynamics.

Michael Rencheck (MSR '20) entered Northwestern Engineering's Master of Science in Robotics (MSR) program with an interest in navigation and control. When he graduated, he took that passion to Performance Drone Works (PDW), a startup developing lightweight Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to provide US soldiers with information in the field to help minimize risks. The work was just what he wanted, at least until Boston Dynamics offered him a job he realized he wanted even more.

Michael RencheckRencheck was an engineer on PDW's autonomy team, where he was responsible for developing and integrating the software stack for autonomous navigation and behaviors. Rather than being told to implement specific algorithms for the drone, he and his team were often tasked with broader challenges, like determining how to make a drone hold its position for a certain amount of time without moving more than a certain distance. 

It was that problem-solving component he enjoyed most. On the technical side, his focus was always on developing software that didn't compromise the balance between a drone's compute power, weight, or flight time.

"It was up to our team to figure out how to best achieve feature requirements, so we had a lot of input over the direction of our products," he said. "This created a collaborative environment amongst our team and made it very satisfying when something we’d worked toward finally started to perform well."

Working within the security industry and realizing the magnitude of his work was also a powerful motivator. 

"These drones will be used in high-risk scenarios for reconnaissance, and if the product is not flawless, it could easily result in increased risk to the unit," Rencheck said. "People will be depending on the products for their safety, so the drone function must be up to the task."

Rencheck's time at PDW was inspiring, but when a job opportunity at Boston Dynamics presented itself, Rencheck felt he had to take it. 

Rencheck joined the Boston-based company in October 2021. 

At Boston Dynamics, Rencheck is a senior robotics engineer on the controls software team for Stretch, the company's versatile mobile robot designed for case handling and easy deployment in warehouses. His role deals with developing and improving the high-level code base that handles analyzing the quality of a grasp. 

"The appeal for this opportunity was the people and technology I will get to work with," Rencheck said. "I get to go into work every day and see a fleet of Spots — our agile mobile robot — running around! I don't really need to elaborate on how cool the robots are, but the other massive benefit is exposure to some of the sharpest minds in this field."

Rencheck joked about the cool factor of Boston Dynamics, but the reality is he saw a lot of similarities between the larger goals of his current and previous employers. The companies are focused on vastly different technologies, but the development processes are similar.  The hard skills of robotics are also deeply ingrained in both companies, particularly iterating from developing a piece of code to testing it in simulation and then on hardware. 

"In a broader sense, Boston Dynamics is transitioning from research into a product mindset, and this very much aligns with how we were working at PDW," Rencheck said. "The focus isn't just on making a cool robot, but also making it solve a problem or fill a need for another organization."

Rencheck is still involved with navigation and control, and once again, he's entrenched in a collaborative environment, thanks in part to MSR. At Boston Dynamics, Rencheck is on the same team as Boston Cleek (MSR '20) and Maurice Rahme (MSR '20), two of his friends and classmates from Northwestern. 

"The MSR curriculum was very focused on educating us about the current state and 'soon-to-be' of robots, not necessarily delving into niche research areas," Rencheck said. "That is the hard knowledge companies making robotic products are looking for."

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