Navy Lab Looks to Speed Development of Robotic Systems

By Eric Beidel
Lucas the robot cocked his head and raised his eyebrow in dismay.
Navy scientist Laura Hiatt had just told him that there was a fire in a certain section of a ship that needed attention. But Lucas knew better from previous conversations. He corrected her and told her that particular blaze had been extinguished. A fire burning in another compartment, however, still needed to be dealt with.
Lucas is one of two robots that researchers at a new Navy laboratory have trained to converse and think like humans. The other, Octavia, displayed her ability to follow instructions and spray water on a fire during an April 2 media tour of the Laboratory for Autonomous Systems, or LASR.
The new 50,000-square-foot lab opened two weeks ago. The $17.7 million facility is the first addition to the Navy Research Laboratory’s 130-acre Washington, D.C., campus in about a decade, officials said.
Its primary purpose is to give scientists a place to test autonomous systems in a variety of climates. Sections of the lab recreate rainforests, the ocean and a wind-blown desert. Chambers also have the ability to mimic arctic conditions.
“It’s the first time that we have, under a single roof, a laboratory that captures all the domains in which our sailors, Marines and fellow service members operate,” said Navy Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, chief of naval research.
The lab will bridge the gap between traditional research and in-the-field experimentation, he said.
Instead of taking a system to Hawaii or Arizona to test in those specific environments, researchers can perform more studies on site before they go out on a test range. It will save a lot of time and money, Klunder said, noting that it costs about $40,000 per day just to have a ship out on a range.
Scientists could set up and run an experiment in the new lab all within a day, whereas it may take months just to schedule time in another facility, Klunder said.
Several projects already are underway at LASR, and more will begin next week, said Alan Schultz, director of the lab.
Scientists have attached fins modeled after those of a fish to an underwater vehicle to increase its effectiveness while swimming near the shore. This four-finned robot could come in handy in harbors and near piers, explained engineer Jason Geder.
In one bay, Octavia wheels around the ground while a small drone circles above it, able to sense the walls and avoid them on its own. In the desert lab, a small robotic backhoe digs through the sand searching for a ball the way a machine would to find an improvised explosive device. In another room, aerospace engineer Dan Edwards takes what looks like a computer mouse and unfolds two wings and a tailfin. Suddenly, the small device becomes a gliding drone. It could be tossed into an office window somewhere, fold back in its wings and set there like a mouse again, appearing inconspicuous while it spies on the room’s occupants. Researchers also are working on drones that look like bricks and birds, Edwards said.
Navy researchers have been investigating autonomous systems for decades, officials said. In 1923, they built their first remote control vehicle dubbed Electric Dog. Three years later, they held a patent on the joystick.
Since the earliest planning stages, officials wanted the work at LASR to focus on autonomy and robotics. The Defense Department’s emphasis on unmanned systems simply made that continuing focus a “no brainer,” Klunder said. The Pentagon’s new plan puts priority on the Asia-Pacific region where contested environments may require increased use of unmanned systems such as drones, he said.
The concepts being developed at the facility involve many different vehicles, as well as their electronic systems and sensors and how they perform in strong currents, intense humidity and scorching heat.
While scientists use the systems at the lab to conduct basic and applied research, officials said they think the new facility will cut down the time it takes to deliver such technology to troops.
“We expect it to pay big dividends,” Klunder said.
Look for additional coverage in the June edition of National Defense.

Topics: Aviation, C4ISR, Intelligence, Sensors, Defense Department, Advanced Weapons, Infotech, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles, Unmanned Ground Vehicles, Unmanned Underwater Vehicles, Science and Engineering Technology, Test and Evaluation, Undersea Warfare

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