PhD Position on Skills for Human-robot Collaboration
KU Leuven Department of Engineering


(ref. BAP-2019-530)

You will be part of the Robotics Research Group at the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Division of Production engineering, Machine design and Automation (PMA). The group has pioneered robotics research in Europe since the mid-1970s and was among the first to develop active force feedback for assembly operations. Already in 1980 it developed learning insertion algorithms based on stochastic automata. It has covered virtually all aspects of sensor-based robotics, from the high-level task specification down to low-level sensor-based control, and applied the research results in a variety of industrial applications. In the last decade the group shifted its attention towards service robots (behaviour-based mobile manipulation, shared control, learning control), medical robotics (natural interfaces, haptic bilateral control), industrial robot assistants, and active sensing. PMA has created several spin-off companies that are active in robotics-related activities, has initiated several free and open-source software projects in robotics (Orocos, KDL, iTaSC, eTaSL, ...), and has participated in a large number of EU projects in robotics, mostly oriented towards control and software development, with a focus on model-driven engineering techniques. More information is available through the link below.


In modern robotics, attention is shifting from classical robots, performing a prescribed motion repeatedly with very basic sensor interaction, to robots with very rich sensors (force, vision ...) that are able to perform more complex and interactive tasks.

A special subclass are the industrial robot assistants, also denoted industrial collaborative robots or cobots, which work alongside and together with humans. Cobots are used for cases in which full automation is economically and/or technically not (yet) feasible (for example due to small lot sizes or high variety that cannot be dealt with), but at the same time manual labour is expensive and/or faces ergonomic issues.

The goal of this PhD position is to develop a programming framework for human-robot collaborative skills. The traditional robot tool-centric motion primitives (point-to-point, linear ...) do not suffice to specify rich human-robot interaction. Aside from the framework itself, the PhD will also develop a library of concrete reusable shared-control skills, such as:

Realizing robot admittance/impedance/compliance control with impedance parameters (stiffness, damping) that can be set dynamically during the task execution, for example to manipulate objects in a human-robot cooperative way
Configuring dynamic virtual fixtures and geofencing to specify virtual environment (tracks, guides, walls ...) that help the operator
Combining sensor-guided motions and predefined trajectories with impedance control in order to create a shared control behaviour
Controlling systems of interacting robot subsystems, for example multiple robot arm carrying a load
Controlling Human-robot object handovers
The contribution of the PhD is not (only) the specification of these skills individually, but (also) their composition in which multiple skills can be activated both sequentially as well as simultaneously, in an integrated approach and software package. In order to realize this, the PhD will rigorously define and implement the skills using constraint-based programming as underlying paradigm, cf. for example the references below.

[1] Aertbeliën E., De Schutter J. (2014). Etasl/eTC: A Constraint-Based Task Specification Language and Robot Controller Using Expression Graphs. In: 2014 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (1540-1546). Presented at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems, Chicago, 14 Sep 2014-18 Sep 2014.

[2] Scioni E., Borghesan G., Bruyninckx H., Bonfè M. (2014). A Framework for Formal Specification of Robotic Constraint-Based Tasks and Their Concurrent Execution with Online QoS Monitoring. In: 2014 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS) (Paper No. 1620) (2963-2969). Presented at the IROS, 01 Jan 2014-01 Jan 2014.

[3] Decré W., De Schutter J., Bruyninckx H. (2013). Extending the Itasc Constraint-Based Robot Task Specification Framework to Time-Independent Trajectories and User-Configurable Task Horizons. In: Robotics and Automation (ICRA), 2013 IEEE International Conference on (1941-1948). Presented at the ICRA, ISBN: 978-1-4673-5643-5.

[4] Scioni E., Klotzbuecher M., De Laet T., Bruyninckx H., Bonfe M. (2013). Preview coordination: An enhanced execution model for online scheduling of mobile manipulation tasks. In: Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS), 2013 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on (5779-5786). Presented at the Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS), Tokyo, 03 Nov 2013-08 Nov 2013.

[5] De Schutter J., De Laet T., Rutgeerts J., Decré W., Smits R., Aertbeliën E., Claes K., Bruyninckx H. (2007). Constraint-based task specification and estimation for sensor-based robot systems in the presence of geometric uncertainty. International Journal of Robotics Research, 26 (5), 433-455.


A successful candidate has obtained a MSc degree in engineering (Mechanical, Mechatronics, Electrical, Computer Science) related to Robotics and has a background and interest to contribute to:

numerical optimization, control theory
real-time control, embedded control systems, software engineering for robotic

Contributions to free and open source software projects (also beyond the topic of the project!) and hands-on experience with robot platforms and sensor systems (vision, force ...) are both a plus. If applicable, please list them clearly in your application or send us your portfolio.

In your motivation letter or extended CV description, please consider to mention your previous experiences and skills, which may help to make relevant contributions to the project.

The selected candidate is furthermore expected to:

have a very good knowledge of English (spoken and written)
be able to work independently, accurately and methodically
be a team player
present research findings at national and international conferences
publish research findings in international journals
The successful candidate will receive:

a fully funded doctoral scholarship for one year, renewable up to four years
multiple benefits (health insurance, access to university infrastructure and sports facilities, etc.)
the opportunity to participate in research collaborations and international conferences
A start in the course of 2019 or first quarter of 2020 is to be agreed upon.

Please use the online application tool to submit your application.


- an academic CV with photo

- a pdf of your diplomas and transcript of course work and grades

- statement of research interests and career goals (max. 2 pages)

- sample of technical writing (publication or thesis)

- contact details of at least two referees

Deadline: October 15, 2019. Note: the position might be filled in earlier if an excellent candidate is found.

For more information, send an e-mail to

You can apply for this job no later than October 15, 2019 via the online application tool

KU Leuven seeks to foster an environment where all talents can flourish, regardless of gender, age, cultural background, nationality or impairments. If you have any questions relating to accessibility or support, please contact us at

If you apply for this position please say you saw it on Computeroxy


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