LOWELL, Mass. – Robots ran obstacle courses, climbed through a honeycomb of compartments, tested their vision and soaked themselves in simulated rainstorms. Those were just a few of the demonstrations today at the opening of the most advanced robotics testing facility in the nation, the New England Robotics Validation and Experimentation Center, located at UMass Lowell.
Designed to fuel robotics research and development in all of the New England states, the NERVE Center will serve what is already a $1.9 billion industry just in Massachusetts, according to a new report released at the opening by the Mass Technology Leadership Council.
Speakers at the event included Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Greg Bialecki, UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan, MassTLC President and CEO Tom Hopcroft and Colin Angle, chairman, CEO and co-founder of iRobot.
The NERVE Center, located at 1001 Pawtucket Blvd., Lowell, features a dozen courses that test the strength, durability, design and functionality of robots. The courses use materials like wood, sand, gravel and water to challenge robots’ capabilities to negotiate obstacles and rough terrain like rubble, climb inclines and stairs, maneuver through deep water, withstand rainstorms, handle objects and view images in a variety of circumstances. One of the courses simulates the conditions a robot would face if deployed inside a collapsed building on a search-and-rescue mission.
“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,” said state Housing and Economic Development Secretary Greg Bialecki. “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.”
The center is available to companies regardless of their location for a single use or frequent testing.
“The NERVE Center at UMass Lowell enables companies like iRobot to rigorously test robots, challenge their capabilities in real environments and push the boundaries of innovation,” said Angle, who announced that the Burlington-based company is the first to become a member of the center. “The practical robot industry is here and based on real robots and real work saving lives around the world, on the battlefield and in disaster zones.”
iRobot was among several industry leaders, along with Adept MobileRobotics, QinetiQ and VGo Communications, that demonstrated robots at the event. More than 150 robotics companies are based in Massachusetts, 60 percent of which are less than 10 years old and have already captured more than $200 million in private investment, according to the MassTLC report, “The Massachusetts Robotics Revolution: Inspiring Innovation, Driving Growth and Competitiveness in Leading Industries.” The full report is available at www.masstlc.org
“We are literally building the future,” said Hopcroft. “With 35 research and development programs across 10 leading institutions, there is simply no other place on the planet with a greater concentration of brain power focused on robotics. The implications for the future are widespread, with local companies focused on a diverse range of applications from educational robots to health care, marine science to manufacturing, material handling to defense and more.”
Robotics cluster companies have seen a 200 percent increase in venture funding since 2008, a 45 percent jump in sales and 39 percent growth in employment, according to the MassTLC report. Eighty percent of the companies that participated in the report plan continued expansion and growth this year, thanks in part to the talent pool in the region that includes both workers with experience and recent graduates of academic programs in robotics and related fields.
To spur that growth in the Commonwealth and neighboring states, the NERVE Center offers the only robotics-testing facility in the Northeast and one of only three in the United States. Developed in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology, which also oversees the other two test facilities, the NERVE Center’s proximity will cut development and other costs for robotics companies and researchers based in New England. All of the testing will be confidential to protect intellectual property and other proprietary information.
“Before the NERVE Center, researchers from companies and universities who wanted to test their robots on the NIST courses needed to travel to Maryland or Texas. 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 Prof. Holly Yanco, NERVE Center director and UMass Lowell computer science faculty member.
Yanco is a respected robotics researcher and educator whose work has been supported by Microsoft, NIST and the National Science Foundation, which presented her with a Career Award in 2005. Other UMass Lowell faculty associated with the NERVE Center and robotics-related research at UMass Lowell include Jill Drury, Yan Luo, Ionnis Raptis, Kate Saenke and Sammy Shina.
“Through the work of talented faculty led by Prof. Yanco, UMass Lowell has established itself as a leader in research in cutting-edge fields like robotics. At the new NERVE Center, companies from across the region, both large and small, will be able to easily access that research expertise and top-of-the-line testing facilities,” said Meehan. “It will provide opportunities for students to get hands-on experience in a field that holds tremendous promise, from creating and sustaining jobs to solving problems and enhancing lives.”
The NERVE Center also supports the education of undergraduate and graduate students at UMass Lowell, 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 robo-ops competition in June and are using an 8-foot by 24-foot sand course in the NERVE Center to test the rover during its development.
The center is managed by Adam Norton, a UMass Lowell alumnus who has been working in robotics research since shortly after graduating from Lowell High School and joining the Artbotics community program Yanco co-developed. As a UMass Lowell student, Norton worked in the university’s Robotics Lab, which Yanco founded to educate students from freshmen to doctoral candidates.
“I graduated from UMass Lowell with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in 2010. Although I did not formally study computer science or engineering, I am working in the field of robotics,” said Norton. “The fine arts program taught me to think analytically and make informed decisions and working in the Robotics Lab gave me a new and exciting area to which I could bring that skill set. As manager of the NERVE Center, I have the opportunity to utilize all that I’ve learned from my education and experiences at UMass Lowell and further contribute to the robotics field.”
UMass Lowell is a national research university located on a high-energy campus in the heart of a global community. The university offers its more than 16,000 students bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in business, education, engineering, fine arts, health and environment, humanities, sciences and social sciences. UMass Lowell delivers high-quality educational programs, vigorous hands-on learning and personal attention from leading faculty and staff, all of which prepare graduates to be ready for work, for life and for all the world offers. www.uml.edu
The Mass Technology Leadership Council (MassTLC) is the region’s leading technology association and the premier network for tech executives, entrepreneurs, investors and policy leaders. MassTLC’s purpose is to accelerate innovation by connecting people from across the technology landscape, providing access to industry-leading content and ideas and offering a platform for visibility for member companies and their interests. www.masstlc.org