UMass Lowell’s NERVE Center celebrates 10 years of robot development, testing

LOWELL — With the advent of robots, some people fear their jobs — or the world — will be overtaken by machines and androids.

Fear not. At UMass Lowell, researchers are reimagining the relationship between humans and their robot counterparts.

UMass Lowell’s New England Robotics Validation and Experimentation Center — NERVE Center for short — celebrated its 10th anniversary on Monday, with university faculty and partners praising the center’s achievements, remembering its early days and acknowledging the progress it’s made since its 2013 inception.

Staff and students at the NERVE Center evaluate and test robots’ capabilities for their potential future development and to better inform companies of their abilities for real-world use.

Adam Norton, associate director of the NERVE Center, walked the audience through the highlights of the last 10 years, examining how the staff has expanded from two to 16, explaining their successful work in robotics competitions and showing off the development and installation of different technologies.

Norton also shared the timeline by the numbers: 64 grants, more than $25 million in funding and six different acronyms, the last of which got plenty of chuckles. In their first year, Norton said the university’s team participated in NASA’s Robo-Ops competition, which became a launching point to integrate humanoid robotics and collaborate with the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command, or DEVCOM.

“We took first place with that, with the Rover Hawks… and that was something that really showed the power of having a dedicated test facility,” Norton said, “where they develop their system and control it from NERVE during the competition.”

Without “critical” state support and research grants, the NERVE Center would not be able to operate, said Chancellor Julie Chen, making it truly “a team effort.” The center also combines several different disciplines: physical therapy, biomedical engineering, mechanical and electrical, kinesiology and computer science.

The university is able to find solutions to modern-day inquiries by understanding human-robot interactions and partnering with companies to improve that technology, Chen added. Those studies are integral to UMass Lowell, she said, calling it “an amazing, amazing center.”

Students at the center garner strong experiences and are exposed to a “breadth of robotics and automation,” Chen said, a field that is only expanding.

“The next 10 years are going to be even more exciting in terms of the growth and what it brings to Lowell,” Chen said in an interview.

David Audet is the chief of systems division and soldier effectiveness directorate at the DEVCOM Soldier Center, where he works on integrating advanced technologies to assist troops. Working with NERVE is “a breath of fresh air,” having worked in bureaucracy for 30 years, he said.

Audet said they aim to equip soldiers, who already have “a very difficult job,” but NERVE’s robots, drones, exoskeletons and other developments make that job a little easier.

“The work that we do, the work that you do, makes a difference… to help them stay safe, be more efficient, be more informed and helps them be more protected,” Audet said. “So at the end of the day, they can go home.”

NERVE Center faculty displayed its diverse set of robots, from grippers to exoskeletons to unmanned aerial systems used by the military.

Brian Flynn, the center’s test engineer, demonstrated the NERVE ARMada, a collection of robot arms that can grab and move objects and are commonly used in warehouses. Flynn tested the UR5e robot made by Universal Robots, which he said “live up” to the name.

Most of those bots’ purpose is to work on a conveyor line or conduct small assembly tasks. As onlookers stood by, Flynn had the robot pick up an oddly formed object to test its spatial awareness and predict their behavior in similar experiments to establish a set of standards.

“We’re doing repetition, but in a testing sense,” Flynn said. “Normally, these robots are just told, ‘Go exactly here, go exactly there, do exactly this thing,’ and there’s no guesswork. Robots can do more than that, so we’re just trying to help in that study.”

The star of the show, however, was Spot, a four-footed Boston Dynamics robot with an arm attachment, 360-degree obstacle avoidance, self-balancing, cameras and other unique features. Peter Gavriel, the robotics technician at NERVE, controlled Spot using a large console that resembles a video game controller, manipulating its movements, picking up guests’ soda cans, walking toward them and occasionally posing for cameras.

Unlike other systems or technologies at NERVE, Spot is not an acronym but rather a reference to its dog-like appearance.

“The output of the testing that we do, it aids in the development that these companies do,” Gavriel said. “This robot, it can be used for a lot of automated inspection. You can put it on a schedule to go walk around some facility, take pictures of gauges and things like that and have a totally automated process for keeping up with a facility.”

State Reps. Vanna Howard and Rodney Elliott, state Sen. Ed Kennedy and Lowell School Committee member Dominik Lay all attended the festivities, interacting with the robots. While some attendees were hesitant to approach Spot, Kennedy shook its hand.

Before the presentation, Howard emphasized her support for legislation that would bolster scientific development in Lowell and said she is proud that the NERVE Center is located in the district.

“Massachusetts, we are a leader in the medical field, in academia,” Howard said, “and to have UMass Lowell be a part of that leadership, to have this NERVE Center, it’s great, especially in the city of Lowell, one of the gateway cities.”


Donovan Larsen

Donovan is a columnist and associate editor at the Dark News. He has written on everything from the politics to diversity issues in the workplace.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button