UMass Lowell — Testing the Droids You’ve Been Looking For

Robots 060Innovation – it’s not just for Cambridge and Boston anymore.

Until this week, when one of the growing number of robotics companies (100 robotics companies and 10 research institutions) in Massachusetts wanted to vigorously test it’s prototypes they would have to travel to Maryland or Texas, incurring travel costs and losing valuable research time.

Now, they can come to Lowell.

On Tuesday morning, UMass Lowell celebrated the grand opening of its NERVE (New England Robotic Validation and Experimentation) Center on Pawtucket Boulevard, under the direction of Professor Holly Yanco.

Mayor Patrick Murphy

Mayor Patrick Murphy

“As the University goes, so goes the city,” said Mayor Patrick Murphy, lauding the partnership between the city and university, a key to the region’s economic vitality.

“Lowell is proving once again it is a place where exciting things are happening,” said Massachusetts Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Greg Bialecki, adding the state is driven by the innovation economy, with robotics leading the way.

Bialecki added the robotics industry keeps growing and moving forward seemingly unaware of the “hand wringing” going on in government and bureaucratic circles about whether Massachusetts is a good place to do business. He made the comparison to the bumblebee who continues flying along; unaware a scientific study concluded his wings are not sufficient to carry his body.

Massachusetts Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Greg Bialecki.

Massachusetts Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Greg Bialecki.

According to a report released Tuesday by the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council, more than 3,200 people are employed by robotics companies in Massachusetts, an industry that has seen $1.9 billion in sales and in which 60 percent of the companies are less than 10 years old. More than $200 million have been invested in robotics in the last five years in this state.

iRobot CEO and co-founder Colin Angle.

iRobot CEO and co-founder Colin Angle.

Colin Angle, Chairman of the Board, CEO and co-Founder, of Burlington-based iRobot (yes, the people who make that cute Roomba vacuum robot), announced on Tuesday his company would be the first and an “enthusiastic” user of the facility.

“The days of the robot demo being enough are gone,” said Angle, explaining a robot used to be deemed a success if you could get it to work once – on video. Today, robots need to be durable and operate consistently every day.

State Rep. Kevin Murphy (D-Lowell) and iRobot CEO and co-founder Colin Angle.

State Rep. Kevin Murphy (D-Lowell) and iRobot CEO and co-founder Colin Angle.

He referred to those charged with testing the inventors’ prototypes as “a fiendish band of rogue engineers,” who spend their days figuring out how to render the robots inoperable in the quest to building a better robot.

“We are grateful to these strange human beings for existing,” Angle added.

Although iRobot is commercially known for the Roomba, they have also engineered many military robots capable of much more than cleaning up spilled Cheerios.

Following the massive earthquake that devastated Japan and severely compromised the Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011, two of iRobot’s droids, the Packbot 510 and Warrior 710 were deployed to the nuclear reactor.

The Packbots are capable of detecting temperature, gamma radiation, gas, vapors and toxic chemicals and returning their findings to their controllers immediately. The Warriors have the capability to carry heavier loads and be used as robotic “firefighters,” bringing hoses into sections of the plant to provide cooling water.

It was the use of the robots that Japanese officials credited with the cool shutdown of the plant.

Back in Lowell, the NERVE Center will be used by both academic researchers and companies to build a better robot in a number of areas including: human-robot interaction, autonomous systems, urban search and rescue, and assistive technology. Center staff, directed by Yanco and managed by Adam Norton, will also develop new methods for testing robotic prototypes.

Robots 089

NAO the Humanoid Robot by Aldebaran Robotics

NAO the Humanoid Robot by Aldebaran Robotics

This robot by Harvest Automation of Billerica moves and spaces potted plants in greenhouses.

This robot by Harvest Automation of Billerica moves and spaces potted plants in greenhouses.

State Rep. Kevin Murphy, Mayor Patrick Murphy and Chancellor Marty Meehan.

State Rep. Kevin Murphy, Mayor Patrick Murphy and Chancellor Marty Meehan.

City Manager Bernie Lynch, Chancellor Marty Meehan, State Rep. Kevin Murphy and Mayor Patrick Murphy.

City Manager Bernie Lynch, Chancellor Marty Meehan, State Rep. Kevin Murphy and Mayor Patrick Murphy.

The indoor arenas of the 10,800 square-foot facility, 9,000 square-feet of which is dedicated to testing tracks, will allow for year-round testing of robot systems.

The test courses include:

  • Indoor rain area
  • Fording basin
  • Splash pools
  • Various surfaces and terrain types
  • Sand
  • Gravel
  • Cobblestone
  • Belgian Block
  • Brick
  • Version of the NASA Mars Yard (sand, rocks, and hill)
  • Replicated from NIST; mostly for SUGV (small unmanned ground vehicle) mobility and endurance testing
  • Continuous/Crossing Pitch and Roll Ramps
  • Underbody Inspection
  • Symmetric Step fields
  • Multiple staircases at different angles
  • Hurdles and Gaps
  • Sensor Visual Acuity Tests
  • Inclined Plane
  • Horizontal and Vertical Planar Apparatuses
  • Cylindrical Apparatuses
  • Breaking/Boring Wall
  • Polar Grid with Radial and Nodal Apparatuses

“We are taking the next step into the future,” said UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan.

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