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NEWS | Sept. 21, 2010

Schultz Named as First Director of Autonomous Systems Research Laboratory

By Amanda Bowie

The Naval Research Laboratory has established the Autonomous Systems Research Laboratory (ASRL) to support highly innovative, interdisciplinary research in autonomous systems. The Laboratory will capitalize on the broad multidisciplinary character of NRL, bringing together scientists and engineers with disparate training and backgrounds to attack common goals at the intersection of their respective fields in autonomous systems. Estimated to be complete in October 2011, the new facility will be located at NRL Washington, D.C., between existing Buildings 72 and 32.

The new facility, which will cost approximately $17.7 million to construct, will integrate science and technology components into research prototype systems and will become the nerve center for basic research that supports autonomous systems research for the Navy and Marine Corps. Capt. Paul Stewart, NRL Commanding Officer, says, Every few decades a unique research facility is envisioned which has the potential to revolutionize the scientific methods and collaboration in various disciplines; the ASRL is one of those unique facilities. This is an exciting venture for the scientists of NRL and the greater science community who can collaboratively use this asset to launch DoD autonomous systems forward into future generations.

Mr. Alan Schultz, currently the Director of the Naval Center for Applied Research in Artificial Intelligence at NRL, has been appointed as the first Director for the ASRL. Of his appointment, Schultz says, Autonomous Systems are immensely important to Naval systems and to DoD in general. Because NRL has a very broad research program that cuts across almost all areas of autonomous systems, with key aspects of autonomy research happening in many of NRL's divisions, leading a coordinated effort to bring these pieces together to advance the state of the art in autonomy is very satisfying, as well as challenging. Schultz will also continue to lead the Naval Center for Applied Research in Artificial Intelligence at NRL, as its director.

Schultz has 24 years of experience and over 100 publications in robotics, human-robot interaction, and machine learning, and is responsible for establishing and directing the robotics laboratory at NRL. He was selected to teach at the first IEEE/RAS Summer School on Human-Robot Interaction, has been editor of several collections in multi-robot systems, and has chaired many conferences and workshops in robotics and human-robot interaction. Schultz has been Primary Investigator on numerous ONR, DARPA, NASA and DOE grants. He is the recipient of numerous Navy Special Achievement awards for significant contributions, and the Alan Berman Research Publication Award. His research is in the areas of human-robot interaction, machine learning, autonomous robotics, and adaptive systems. Schultz received his M.S. in Computer Science from George Mason University in 1988.

In his capacity as Director for the ASRL, Schultz will be primarily responsible for interacting with the broader community including potential Naval end users, sponsors and visitors of the laboratory. An important aspect of Mr. Schultz's position is looking at how individual NRL research efforts related to autonomy can be brought together into cohesive autonomy solutions for Naval Forces, says Dr. John Montgomery, NRL Director of Research. While NRL has many individual projects related to autonomy, everything from platforms, sensors, and energy systems to the development of autonomous behavior, the new facility will allow NRL to look at the issues in integration of the components into complete solutions, explains Montgomery.

The ASRL facilities are available for use NRL-wide as they do not belong to a single division or discipline. NRL scientists may bring a project to the ASRL to work as a team and use its unique facilities, but retain their positions within their divisions, explains Montgomery. Researchers will not be permanently assigned to the ASRL, but rather, they may use the unique capabilities housed in the facility in a collaborative team environment when needed.

Allowing scientists and engineers to validate their projects at the S&T level, the ASRL will save valuable time and funds that are normally spent in traveling to real environments. Schultz says of the facility, Having a local facility with physical analogs to real environments allows better validation of research concepts than working strictly in simulations, and allows for more iterations of design than always testing in a real environment. Researchers might begin the validation process in simulation, then perform integration and testing in the new facility, and then move out to the field, having more confidence in their results, and saving both time and money, concludes Schultz.

There are currently several major funded projects slated for the ASRL, including an ONR project on developing shipboard firefighting robots, and another that will be investigating advance techniques for testing and evaluating autonomy logic for unmanned underwater vehicles.

Unique to the ASRL are three laboratory facilities, the Power and Energy laboratory, Sensor laboratory, and four Human-Systems Interaction laboratories that will allow scientists and engineers the opportunity to conduct multidisciplinary research.

The Power and Energy laboratory features a walk-in dry room that will allow research the opportunity to handle moisture-sensitive or hydroscopic materials such as those used in lithium ion batteries. The facility will allow other novel power sources such as fuel cell technology to be integrated into new systems and platforms.

Calibration and testing will be a major activity in the Sensor laboratory where researchers will take different types of chemical, biological, radiation, nuclear or explosives (CBRNE) sensors as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) sensors developed in other NRL Washington, D.C., facilities and integrate them into systems and platforms in the new laboratory. The Sensor laboratory will also house a unique aerosol flow tube in an adjacent room.

Four Human-System Interaction laboratories housed in the building will enable researchers to work and communicate with robots and other robotic platforms. The laboratories will also develop automated support tools and address critical communications and network issues.

Unique to the Autonomous Systems Research Laboratory are simulated environments as well as reconfigurable high bay spaces for initial systems testing. The simulated environments include an indoor Desert High Bay, Littoral High Bay and Tropical High Bay and an outdoor Upland Forest area. The Desert High Bay, the simulated desert environment, will feature a sand pit and two rock walls with outcroppings. Variable levels of illumination, wind, and smoke are additional elements in the desert environment. The Littoral High Bay, a simulated coastal environment, will feature mud/sediment pits, small flow and wave tanks, and a large pool with a sloping floor. The simulated jungle terrain and rain forest of the Tropical High Bay environment will include a flowing water feature in an enclosed greenhouse-type structure. An adjacent outdoor area will be home to an upland forest, which includes a pond and other water features. The Reconfigurable High Bay is large enough to fly multiple small air vehicles as well as operate ground vehicles. The high bay allows motion capture and high resolution tracking of multiple vehicles and people for validation of experiments. The facility will also have pseudo-GPS and an audio system to recreate directional ambient noises.

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