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Center Builds Robots With More Bang for the Buck

February 15, 2008
by Rita Boland
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As the demand for robotics expands in both the commercial and public sectors, developers at a university institute are working to move relevant technology into the marketplace rapidly. Engineers are creating smarter systems that are more autonomous and that have application to various fields, including military combat. Current programs are spawning new ideas, and program officials are seeking to demonstrate technology to funding authorities quickly to determine the best path forward early in the development cycle.

The National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC), a unit of the Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute, is a major robotics engineering and development organization for both public and private programs. Sometimes considered a hybrid between a university center and a contractor, the NREC has many projects underway and is looking toward future trends as well.

Steve DiAntonio, director of business development at the NREC, explains that currently, few applied robotics capabilities exist in the marketplace in either the public or private sectors. Only in the past 10 years has there been a need to use laboratory-grade technology to make robotics more robust and cost effective so that the automation can be applied in true operational environments. By displaying capabilities in these types of environments, NREC personnel give interested parties a better idea of whether a technology should advance to the next stage and whether it would be productive. These same decisions are more challenging to make in the early technology stages. “It’s just difficult to connect the dots,” DiAntonio says.

In terms of U.S. Defense Department projects, the NREC has a technical readiness level of 5 to 6, meaning that it develops systems that have been tested in the operationally relevant environments. One of the major military projects being conducted at the center is the Crusher unmanned ground combat vehicle (UGCV) for the UGCV PerceptOR Integration (UPI) program. PerceptOR stands for Perception for Off-Road Robotics. The UPI program combines Crusher with advanced perception, autonomy and learning techniques. The program incorporates system design across vehicles, sensors and software, enabling one component’s strengths to compensate for weakness in a different component. The UPI is a Future Combat Systems feed program.

On occasion, an NREC program demonstration leads to another project. Crusher was developed as a vehicle to conduct UPI experiments and tests. Personnel at the NREC took the requirements provided by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for the UPI and started with a clean slate to invent a configuration that made sense for the program. They had to figure out how to take advantage of a vehicle with no cockpit as well as to determine what it would look like. UPI personnel now are examining how to enable the vehicles to travel over terrain that soldiers traverse, to navigate intelligently and to conduct missions autonomously.

The NREC recently signed a new contract with the U.S. Army Tank-Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) to build an updated version of the Crusher as part of the Autonomous Platform Demonstrator program. TARDEC plans to add, on a work-directive basis, the requirement for NREC engineers to develop an unmanned ground vehicle end-to-end control architecture and to demonstrate the viability of the vehicle’s autonomous operations in a relevant environment.

The NREC differentiates between its projects with unmanned vehicle design and autonomous vehicle technologies. Each category is a separate project area within the center. DiAntonio explains that the unmanned vehicles projects focus more on the design aspect, such as the best form for a 9-pound robot. The autonomous vehicle project area focuses more on the sensors and software necessary to make the vehicle intelligent. Platforms for those projects may be developed at the center, or personnel may take advantage of existing platforms. Other NREC project categories include operator-assist technologies, innovative mechanisms, sensing and image processing applications, and machine learning applications.

Of all the programs under the NREC’s various categories, DiAntonio says that the UPI is the flagship. In February, the UPI team performed a field test at FortCarson, experimenting with a series of metrics it has to meet to receive a checkmark from DARPA. Over the course of the UPI program, the NREC has tried to increase the complexity of the terrain the vehicle must travel, increase the vehicle speed and reduce the number of human interventions necessary to complete a mission. All the testing includes certain commonalities. The Crusher will start out on a traverse of a certain number of kilometers and will have to hit waypoints—global positioning system spots about one kilometer apart—with the objective to reach them as quickly as possible with no human intervention.

Another big effort at the NREC is DARPA’s Urban Challenge. In contrast to the UPI program, this project involves autonomous vehicles navigating through urban areas. “There, the challenge is dynamic obstacles,” DiAntonio states. The NREC did not take the lead on Carnegie Mellon’s Urban Challenge project, but it did contribute resources and personnel.

In addition to the current work at the center, officials at the NREC are looking at future trends. DiAntonio identifies one trend as learning techniques for robots. Engineers are developing techniques to study whether a robot can learn from its mistakes. “That is the technique I think that will dominate over the next 10 years,” he shares.

The full version of this article is published in the March 2008 issue of  SIGNAL Magazine, in the mail to AFCEA members and subscribers March 3, 2008. For information about purchasing this issue, joining AFCEA or subscribing to SIGNAL, contact AFCEA Member Services.