State-of-the-Art Robotics Testing Center Now Open for Business

Brand-New Facility Will Help Spur Robotics R&D

iRobot’s SUGV (Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle) was one of more than a dozen robots on display during the NERVE Center’s grand opening on Feb. 12.

iRobot’s SUGV (Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle) was one of more than a dozen robots on display during the NERVE Center’s grand opening on Feb. 12.

02/18/2013
By Edwin L. Aguirre

“It’s absolutely great to have a facility like this,” said Robert Antonuccio, owner and designer of Groton-based Caliper Industrial Design, a consulting company that is branching out into robotic systems for use in entertainment and education.

“There’s nothing like it right now in the region,” he said, “and it’s right here in our backyard. It’s so convenient!”

Antonuccio was referring to the New England Robotics Validation and Experimentation (NERVE) Center located at UMass Lowell at 1001 Pawtucket Blvd. The center, which was inaugurated Feb. 12, will serve as “proving ground” for robots — a place where these complex machines will undergo rigorous testing to prove their strength, durability, design and functionality — and, in the process, help accelerate robotics research and development across the region.

“The NERVE Center will be the most advanced robotics testing facility in the United States and the most easily accessible to robotics companies and researchers not only in New England, but also those in the Northeast,” said Chancellor Marty Meehan. “In fact, the only two other high-level test facilities in the country are located in Maryland and Texas.”

He added: “Prior to the opening of the NERVE Center, robotics companies in our region would have to travel to one of these facilities, incurring added costs and losing valuable research hours. Working with UMass Lowell faculty researchers and experts, robotics development will now have the increased ability to rapidly cycle through prototyping, testing and iterative improvements, and will significantly speed up the process of taking robotics technology from the laboratory to real-world applications.”

Developed in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the U.S. Army, the 9,000-square-foot NERVE Center features a dozen dedicated courses that challenge the robots’ ability to negotiate obstacles and traverse rough, uneven terrains and various surface materials (plywood, sand, gravel, cobblestone, brick, vinyl, tile, carpet, etc.). They will also test the robots’ capabilities to climb ramps and stairs, maneuver underwater, withstand rainstorms and manipulate objects under a variety of conditions, as well as check the limits of the visual acuity of the robots’ sensors. One of the courses even simulates the environment a robot would face if deployed inside a collapsed building on a search-and-rescue mission.

Joining Meehan for the center’s inauguration were Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Greg Bialecki, Rep. Kevin Murphy, Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council (MassTLC) President and CEO Tom Hopcroft, iRobot Chairman, CEO and Co-Founder Colin Angle and computer science Prof. Holly Yanco, the center’s director.

“Investing in innovation helped move Massachusetts out of the recession, and continued support for new technology will help us create new jobs and economic growth in the future,” Bialecki told the audience. “As one of the most advanced facilities of its kind, the NERVE Center is a new opportunity for our growing robotics industry to continue to expand its frontiers and for Massachusetts to maintain its position as one of the world leaders in innovation.”

Since 2008, the state’s robotics industry has seen a 45 percent growth in sales, to $1.9 billion, and a 39 percent growth in employment, to 3,200 people, according to a new report released at the opening by MassTLC.

Bedford-based iRobot was among several industry leaders, along with Adept Technology, QinetiQ North America and VGo Communications, that provided robot demonstrations at the event.

“iRobot is excited to be the first company to join the NERVE Center as an enthusiastic user and supporter,” said Angle. “The practical robot industry is here, and is based on real robots and real work saving lives around the world, on the battlefield and in disaster zones.”

A Boon for Industry

To date, there are more than 150 robotics firms based in Massachusetts alone. The NERVE Center is available to companies regardless of their size and location for both short-term and long-term testing. All of the testing will be confidential to protect intellectual property and other proprietary information.

“The NERVE Center is within an hour’s drive of many of the companies and universities in the regional robotics cluster, which allows robotocists to test their systems more frequently during development, leading to improved systems and faster design cycles,” said Yanco.

“It’s an impressive facility,” said Peter Wells, senior program manager and lead principal engineer for QinetiQ North America in Waltham. “They’ve put in a lot of work to create a wide range of environments where one can go in and test the various mobility platforms and capabilities of the robots.”

“A lot of people now are involved in applications robotics research and they are looking for a place to validate their algorithms under controlled conditions,” said Julian Wells, business manager for mobile robots research at Adept Technology Inc. in Amherst, N.H. “The NERVE Center is a perfect place to do it. It’s wide open and it has a lot of courses that are easily changeable. They’ve done a terrific job in setting it up. Robots are no longer novelties — they are now ready to take on real-world challenges. This facility will help them become world-ready.”

Charles Grinnell, co-founder and chief operating officer of North Billerica-based Harvest Automation Inc., said the center is a fantastic resource for their company.

“One of the things we’ll use in the near term is the center’s rain area because our machines need to work outdoors — in farms, greenhouses, nurseries and gardens — under all kinds of conditions,” said Grinnell. “Right now, we just have some random sprinklers and hoses that we use to test the units. Now we can have a very consistent environment to try them out. The center’s test courses are built to NIST standards so we’re confident we’ll be able to replicate experiments accurately.”

Other UMass Lowell faculty members associated with the NERVE Center and robotics-related research at the University include Jill Drury, Yan Luo, Ionnis Raptis, Kate Saenke and Sammy Shina. Adam Norton, an alumnus, is the center’s manager.

In addition to catering to companies, the center will also support the education and hands-on training of undergraduate and graduate students, including undergrads minoring in robotics, said Yanco.

“For example, students in Robotics I this semester are building a Mars rover to compete in a NASA competition in June and are using an 8-by-24-foot sand course in the NERVE Center to test the rover,” she said.