The U.S. Navy recently built a 50,000-square-foot laboratory that models a number of Earth’s ecosystems so that scientists can test robotics in a range of challenging conditions without setting foot in the wild.
Called the Laboratory for Autonomous Systems Research (LASR), and built at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, D.C.—a 130-acre installation—the units duplicate both rainforest and desert. The Tropical High Bay is a 60-foot by 40-foot greenhouse interior that models a Southeast Asian rain forest, right down to the 80 F and 80 percent humidity. The Littoral High Bay is a 5.5-foot deep, 45-foot by 25-foot enclosed pool featuring a 16-channel wave generator that allows researchers to create directional waves to test, for example, wave energy models. The Desert High Bay includes a sand pit, blowing sand and rock walls.
According to Chief of Naval Research Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, it is the first time the U.S. military has had an all-terrain test site under a single roof, and the advantages—to laboratory research and robot testing—are immense. Simply being able to duplicate field conditions in a safe setting, to determine how human users handle robots, is invaluable and promises to advance the fields of robotics and autonomy exponentially.
The LASR building wasn’t cheap, but $17.7 million buys a lot of certainty when tactical commanders want to see how effective and durable such systems as sensor arrays, power and energy systems, human-system interaction and networking and communications systems will be in the “real world” of warfighters. In fact, according to a previous report, the Navy’s own robotic firefighter (to be used fighting fire on board Navy ships) is already being developed inside the lab. Which brings to mind the robotic jellyfish, Robojelly, designed to propel itself through the water in jellyfish fashion using external hydrogen as a fuel source. Eeek! (Repeat after me: not all robots are evil.)