Carnegie Mellon University's National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC) has been selected as a prime contractor or subcontractor on four major new federal research projects totaling more than $11 million over the next three years. The projects range from research on a wheel that can transform into a track to automated stress testing for critical software.
NREC Director Herman Herman said the center has hired 10 new technical staff members in the past six months and anticipates hiring another five to 10 staff members in the coming months to augment its existing staff of about 100.
"For the past 20 years, NREC has been an important national resource, combining unique technical skills and testing capabilities to solve problems that other groups can't," said Martial Hebert, director of CMU's Robotics Institute, which includes the NREC. "These new projects are a reminder that NREC continues to advance the art and science of robotics and that it remains a vital part of Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute."
The new research initiatives include:
- A $4 million project for the Defense Department's Test Resource Management Center (TRMC) to develop automated testing that will ensure the reliability and performance of critical software;
- A $4.2 million Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) project that seeks to develop technology that would enable a wheel to transform into a track so vehicles could tackle a variety of terrains;
- A $1 million U.S. Department of Energy project with Texas A&M University's AgriLife Center that will use robotic vehicles to monitor sorghum plants being bred to enhance their use as energy feedstocks; and
- A $2.4 million DARPA project with Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin company, to create automation that would enable existing aircraft to operate safely with smaller crews.
NREC performs advanced research and early prototype development under contract to a variety of industrial and governmental clients. Its numerous successes have included unmanned ground vehicles and a robotic system for removing aircraft coatings, as well as automated mining, petroleum production and agricultural equipment.
The latest expansion of NREC's research program comes a year after 40 of its staff members left to establish the Uber Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh. Since then, NREC has had several notable accomplishments. Among them is the NREC-designed and -built CHIMP robot that was among the top finishers last June at the DARPA Robotics Challenge, an international competition in which robots needed to drive vehicles, use power tools, open doors, clear debris and perform other tasks in response to natural or manmade disasters. Almost every legged robot in the competition fell, but CHIMP was the only one to get back up on its own and complete the course.
Last fall, a joint effort by NREC and Sikorsky for the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center successfully demonstrated that an autonomous helicopter working together with a self-driving ground vehicle can autonomously survey a remote contaminated site.
It's not surprising that NREC continues to build momentum, said Andrew Moore, dean of the School of Computer Science.
"As the leading academic robotics research center in the world, we're accustomed to a natural flow of technical and research talent back and forth between academia and industry. Top tech firms want the skills Carnegie Mellon faculty, students and staff bring," Moore said. "While four faculty members are now on leave working at Uber ATC, and a number of technicians also joined ATC, we have hired four new faculty in robotics and another 13 in related areas of machine learning, systems and algorithms."
In response to the growing demand for roboticists, the Robotics Institute last fall had more graduate and undergraduate students — 410 — than at any time in its history. It increased the size of its master's degree programs by more than a third.
In addition, the Robotics Institute includes more than 500 faculty, technical staff members and post-doctoral and visiting researchers, giving it the enormous technical breadth and depth of expertise needed for large, real-world-based research work. The institute will be recruiting five additional faculty members this spring.
"Uber is a great addition to Pittsburgh, which is already home to such tech companies as IBM, Google, Apple and Disney," Moore added. "Additionally, the Robotics Institute has been partnering on R&D with dozens of advanced technology companies, auto companies and aero companies. Although we do not now have any R&D partnership with Uber, we are excited to see another significant technology presence in Pittsburgh."
Herman said NREC's combination of developing cutting-edge technology and performing rigorous field-testing produces uniquely trained professionals.
"I've always said, if you work at NREC for three or four years, you can get a job anywhere," Herman said. He added that staff turnover is anticipated and is part of the long-term story of Pittsburgh as a worldwide center for robotics.
The new research efforts are examples of the swell in demand for collaborations that capitalize on NREC's strengths and promise to yield valuable new technologies. These technologies include:
- Robustness Inside-Out Testing: This TRMC project will dramatically increase the power of robustness testing used to find defects in complex unmanned autonomous system software. Michael Wagner, NREC senior commercialization specialist, and Philip Koopman, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, are applying active-learning algorithms to develop a capability called "backward chaining" that will better identify inputs that can cause failures deep within a software system.
- Reconfigurable Wheel-Track for All-Terrain Mobility: Part of DARPA's Ground X Vehicle Technology (GXV-T) program, this research seeks to develop an innovative mobility technology that would allow for on-the-fly transformation of a wheel into a track and vice versa at very high travel speeds. The technology would allow for an increase in versatility and access across a variety of terrains for both manned and unmanned ground vehicles. Dimi Apostolopoulos, senior systems scientist, heads the project.
- Automated Phenotyping System for Genetic Improvement of Energy Crops: Texas A&M is working with NREC and the Robotics Institute's Field Robotics Center on a project to develop sorghum varieties that are well-suited for use as biomass in producing transportation fuels. A mechanical arm will capture images and make measurements of the crops; machine vision and learning algorithms will predict plant growth. David Wettergreen, research professor of robotics, is the principal investigator for the CMU portion of the project, with Apostolopoulos and Herman serving as co-investigators at the NREC.
- Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS): This DARPA program seeks to develop automation technology that could be added to existing aircraft to enable operation with a reduced onboard crew. Sikorsky is leading the research, with a team that includes NREC, United Technologies Research Center and Veloxiti Inc.