Center’s Interdisciplinary Research Leads to More Than $25M in Funding

NERVE Adam Norton and Holly Yanco Image by Brooke Coupal
NERVE Center Associate Director Adam Norton and Director Holly Yanco pose with a humanoid robot.

By Brooke Coupal

When Ann Virts traveled to Massachusetts in January 2013 to assist with the fabrication of UMass Lowell’s new robotics facility, the NERVE Center, she had a message for the center’s associate director.

“I don’t do snow at all,” Virts, the project leader of the Mobility Performance of Robotic Systems at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), told Adam Norton ’10.

But of course, it snowed when Virts arrived.

“I said to Adam, ‘You’re going to have to pick me up,’” she recalls.

Without hesitation, Norton drove through the snow and picked up Virts at her hotel in Chelmsford, Massachusetts. They made their way to the New England Robotics Validation and Experimentation (NERVE) Center at 1001 Pawtucket Blvd. in Lowell, where Virts calibrated the facility’s apparatuses and trained the test administrators.

“That snowy day in Massachusetts solidified NIST’s relationship with the center,” Virts says. “Their tenacity, can-do attitude and camaraderie are what make the NERVE Center the NERVE Center. They are a world-class facility.”

The qualities that Virts saw in the NERVE Center that day remain evident 10 years later and have led to dozens of partnerships and more than $25 million in funding.

History of NERVE

Holly Yanco, a computer science professor who recently became the chair of the Richard A. Miner School of Computer & Information Sciences, developed the Human-Robot Interaction Lab when she came to UMass Lowell in 2001. She often worked with NIST to design tests for robot systems.

NERVE spot and ghost Image by Brooke Coupal
Graduate student Brendan Hertel and NERVE robotics technician Peter Gavriel control doglike robots Ghost and Spot.

“We did a lot of our initial testing in the hallways of Olsen Hall,” Yanco says.

Years later, Chancellor Julie Chen, who was then UML’s vice provost of research, approached Yanco about expanding her work into a full testing center. On Feb. 12, 2013, the NERVE Center officially opened.

“We really are here because Julie had a vision to bring this to UMass Lowell,” says Yanco, the NERVE Center’s director.

The center initially partnered with NIST to replicate the institute’s response robot test methods. The NERVE team went on to compete in NASA’s RASC-AL Robo-Ops Competition, where they had to control a robot remotely from their home facility down on a test course in Houston.

“We took first place,” Norton says. “That really showed the power of having a dedicated test facility.”

The NERVE Center participated in other competitions, like those held by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), while expanding its partnerships with the state, the National Science Foundation, Google and others.

In 2016, the NERVE Center became home to Valkyrie, a roughly 6-foot-tall, 300-pound humanoid robot created by NASA. Only three of the robots were given to research institutions, and UMass Lowell obtained one for two years in partnership with Northeastern University.

“NASA wanted to see the robot in the NERVE Center because it is a unique facility,” Yanco says. “The center allows us at the university to do things that most other researchers don’t have access to.”

Through test courses at the NERVE Center, researchers got to evaluate Valkyrie’s autonomous skills while studying human-robot interaction.

The NERVE Center went on to develop a mobile version of its operations after DARPA requested help testing their quadcopters on Cape Cod and in Florida. 

NERVE Brendan Donoghue Image by Brooke Coupal
Mechatronics technician Brendan Donoghue informs students about drones at the NERVE Center.
To accommodate its growth, the NERVE Center moved its headquarters in 2017 from Pawtucket Boulevard to its current location at 110 Canal St. in downtown Lowell.

“Moving to this space afforded us better facilities and many more ways to expand our research,” Norton says.

The new facility included Movement and Performance Labs, which allowed the NERVE Center to expand their research to exoskeletons; a robotic manipulation testbed named ARMada that is used to test methods for industrial automation tasks; and indoor test environments for drones.

The center has steadily built partnerships with a range of organizations, including the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute and the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command, known as DEVCOM.

“The collaborative work that we do helps equip and clothe soldiers that have very difficult jobs,” says David Audet, systems division chief of the U.S. Army DEVCOM Soldier Center. “The equipment, materials, robots, drones and exoskeletons help soldiers stay safe, be more efficient, be more informed and be more protected, so at the end of the day, they can go home.”

The NERVE Center continues to advance the development of robot systems as the only robotics testing site in the northeastern United States.

“Through testing, we can identify limitations to robot systems to improve them,” Yanco says. “We are grateful for the support of our partners in pursuit of this goal.”

Interdisciplinary Environment

The NERVE Center began with Yanco, Norton and a handful of students.  Now, 16 faculty members, 10 staff members and more than 75 students ranging in fields from engineering to health sciences are involved.

“One of the things that makes the NERVE Center such a big success is that it’s really a team effort,” Chen says. “Holly and Adam have brought people in from so many different disciplines to help solve challenges that we’re seeing in the world today.”

Pei-Chun Kao and Yi-Ning Wu, associate professors in the Department of Physical Therapy and Kinesiology, serve as the center’s scientific leads.

NERVE Hannah Allgood Image by Brooke Coupal
Exercise science undergraduate Hannah Allgood shows off an arm exoskeleton.
“We leverage our interdisciplinary environment and create hands-on opportunities for our students,” Wu says.

Hannah Allgood, a senior honors exercise science major from Windham, New Hampshire, works with Wu on exoskeleton research.

“It’s cool to see how exoskeletons can help people achieve tasks,” she says.

Brendan Hertel ’22 began working on research projects at the NERVE Center with Computer Science Asst. Prof. Reza Ahmadzadeh while an undergraduate. He decided to continue with this work as he pursues a master’s degree in computer science.

“There’s a lot of equipment, space and materials at the NERVE Center. They have everything you need,” says the native of Andover, Massachusetts, who is currently studying how the doglike robot VISION 60 by Ghost Robotics functions in different environments, such as on rocky paths and swaying platforms.

Senior honors mechanical engineering major Emily LaBelle, of Rutland, Massachusetts, joined the NERVE Center in her sophomore year through the Immersive Scholars program, which awards $4,000 to students working on research. She has worked on virtual reality and robotic grasping experiments, as well as robotics outreach programs for middle and high schools.

“Working at the NERVE Center balances out education with real-life experiences,” she says.