UMass Lowell's NERVE Center a New Proving Ground for Tomorrow's Robots
By Marie Donovan
LOWELL -- When he enrolled at UMass Lowell as an undergraduate computer-science major, Eric McCann may not have planned on a career as an inventor.
But on Tuesday, McCann was showcasing for an audience how software he developed along with colleagues Adam Norton and Mark Mioire could be used to fly the Parrot Aerodrone, a hovercraft powered by four blades like a helicopter.
"You could have a multimodal-user interface built into any system," said McCann, who has continued on in the robotics field to earn a graduate degree from UML and now serves as a graduate research assistant in the robotics lab. He is awaiting news on whether the software he created with Mioire and Norton will be awarded a patent.
McCann's audience included state and local officials at the opening of UMass Lowell's New England Robotics Validation and Experimentation Center at 1001 Pawtucket Blvd.
The center is being hailed as the nation's most advanced facility for robotics testing to date.
"The NERVE Center is a cutting-edge testing facility that will improve the development of robotics systems by both academic researchers and private industry," UML Chancellor Marty Meehan said.
Features include obstacle courses that use wood, sand, gravel and water to challenge the robots' capabilities as they negotiate rough terrain and a variety of weather systems in real-life situations, such as search-and-rescue missions. In addition to building test courses, Norton, the NERVE center manager, said he and his colleagues will lead in the development of new methods for evaluating robots.
"There are over 100 companies in Massachusetts doing robotics research," NERVE Center Director Holly Yanco said. In the past, they had to travel to facilities in Maryland or Texas to conduct similar testing.
The job of Norton and others on Yanco's staff is partially to break the robots they test, because clients want to learn what various types of rough terrain will do to rattle screws loose and otherwise render their products inoperable, she said.
The NERVE Center is located in a 10,000-square-foot warehouse-type space the university is leasing at the former M/A-Com facility on Pawtucket Boulevard.
"We have a five-year lease, so we are planning long-term," Yanco said.
Tuesday's event also featured the release of a report by the Mass Technology Leadership Council titled "The Massachusetts Robotics Revolution: Inspiring Innovation, Driving Growth and Competitiveness in Leading Industries."
Speakers included MassTLC President Tom Hopcroft, Mayor Patrick Murphy, state Rep. Kevin Murphy and Colin Angle, CEO and co-founder of Bedford-based iRobot. Angle announced his company will be the first to use the testing facility as it updates products like the 510 PackBot, which is being used to remove radioactive material from the Tsunami-ravaged Fukushima Nuclear Reactor in Japan.
iRobot has more than 5,000 robots in use to help the U.S. military as it engages in conflicts all over the world, iRobot Communications Director Matt Lloyd said.
"The robots that use this center are primarily those in the field of saving lives for soldiers," Lloyd said.
iRobot's SUGV (Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle), which weighs about 5 pounds, can be thrown through windows before soldiers enter a building to locate exits, he said, noting that 51 percent of wartime fatalities come at the initial point of contact with enemy combatants.
Lloyd also pointed out another iRobot product that will be tested at the NERVE Center. The first robot to earn FDA approval for use in hospitals, it can also be used to help Army burn specialists view and diagnose patients immediately after they are injured on the battlefield, so even if they are not able to get there in person, someone at the location can more quickly treat the injured soldiers.
Greg Bialecki, secretary of the state Department of Housing and Economic Development, noted that robotics is "leading the pack" among emerging technologies that are spurring the state's innovation economy to a faster growth rate than any of its peers.
"Lowell is proving once again this is a place where very important things are happening," Bialecki said.