You should listen to your parents but you should always follow your natural tendencies. I am living proof - I am working in art and robotics
Damith Herath is a renowned roboticist who is passionate about the intersection of robotics and performance art. Since primary school, he’s nurtured these twin passions which are woven through his life and have moulded his career.
“All of us have this duality, the engineering, the logic side of things and then the arts, the creative side of things,” he says. “I am living proof – I am working in art and robotics.”
Damith who grew up in Kandy, Sri-Lanka, remembers his father buying him his first computer in primary school. From there, he quickly learned how to code and built his own circuit boards, a radio HiFi system with speakers and also radio antennas for his neighbourhood.
When he was 12 years old, he created his first humanoid robot, with a carved wooden body and foam legs. “We put a motor beneath, like one of those wiper motors from a car, so it could go backwards and forwards,” Damith says. “I built a little amplifier and put a speaker inside the head and then I could talk through the head using a mic.”
Although he didn’t put much effort into his final high school exams, he got into a Bachelor of Science in Engineering at the University of Peradeniya in Kandy, the country’s largest university.
At the age of 26, Damith got a prestigious Sri Lankan presidential scholarship for postgraduate studies and left Sri Lanka for the first time heading to Australia.
He was one of three inaugural PhD students who began their degree just as the UTS Faculty of Engineering and IT had received a multi-million dollar Australian Research Council grant to set up a Centre of Excellence for Autonomous Systems (CAS). “Everything came together at the same time,” Damith says.
His thesis was in simultaneous localisation and mapping (SLAM) “basically how you program a robot to go from A to B in any kind of environment, the technology used in self-driven cars,” he says.
Damith still has fond memories of his five years at UTS. “I really loved the community feel of the engineering faculty, especially the postgraduate team. It was like a close-knit family.”
After graduating, Damith went onto work at Western Sydney University where one of his robotic projects was a finalist in the Engineering Excellence Awards and was installed for three years at Australia’s powerhouse museum.
At the same time, Damith co-founded his own technology consultancy with two colleagues, Robological, which brings human-robot interaction into commercial projects. Robological was the only Australian company in the finals of the 2015 Amazon Robotics Challenge in Seattle.
Since then, Damith’s been a visiting professor at Curtin University and the University of NSW before taking up his current position at the University of Canberra two years ago where he’s establishing the university’s robotics program.
Next year, Damith will chair the first robot art program at the ICRA International Conference on Robotics and Automation to be held in Australia.
His advice to other young aspiring students? “You should listen to your parents but you should always follow your natural tendencies. I am the living proof – I am working in art and robotics.”