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NEWS | April 10, 2024

NSWCPD and Liberty Tech Bridge Facilitates Shipboard Robotics Technical Exchange Meeting with Industry and Academia

By Gary Ell

Engineers from the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Philadelphia Division (NSWCPD) gathered with defense partners, high tech industry, and academia at the Philadelphia Navy Yard Marriott to participate in the inaugural Shipboard Robotics Technical Exchange Meeting (TEM) on March 5, 2024. 

The event, hosted by the Liberty Tech Bridge, powered by NavalX, provided an opportunity to unite industry and academia to naval resources on technology solutions that focus on the shipboard robotics domain. The overarching goal was to align efforts and develop cooperative agreements that accelerate development and transition of practical technology capabilities to Sailors and Marines. 

During the meeting attendees learned more about methods to enable collaboration between NSWCPD, industry, and academia; the problems trying to be solved; the current state; and why robotics engineering is important to the future fleet.  

In addition to NSWCPD, presentations were delivered by Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) Aircraft Division – Lakehurst, Naval Information Warfare Systems Command (NIWC) Pacific, Office of Naval Research (ONR), Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, Perdue University, Ghost Robotics, RADeCO (distributor for Boston Dynamics), and National Security Innovation Network (NSIN). 

The Tech Bridge initiative was created in September 2019 by the Navy’s Naval Agility Office (NavalX), with the goal of rapidly delivering innovative capabilities to service members across the globe. The Liberty Tech Bridge, established in 2022, is the latest addition to the NavalX’s Tech Bridge community and is a partnership between local Navy commands -- Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division – Lakehurst (NAWCAD LKE), NSWCPD, and Naval Information Warfare Systems Command (NIWC) Pacific. 

“Working together is why we have the Liberty Tech Bridge. The Tech Bridge mission is to facilitate strategic partnerships and foster activities between the U.S. Navy and industry, academia, as well as state and local governments in the region that accelerate the creativity and innovation that improve the capability, capacity, and readiness of the Navy,” NSWCPD engineer and Liberty Tech Bridge Director Sonam Chheda said.

“Our vision for future naval power is one based on vibrant partnerships with industry and academia. We are looking at better ways where we can take this technology, mature it, and transition it to the fleet,” she added.
“NSWCPD continues to be a key player in this cooperative partnership between a number of naval labs and organizations, including NavalX. Our successes are predicated by and built upon a foundation of the expansive relationships we sustain,” Chheda said.

During opening remarks, Dr. Nathaniel Goldfarb, a robotics researcher at the Robotics and Intelligent Systems Engineering (RISE) laboratory at NAVAIR, outlined the current state of the art with Navy robotic technology and identified the gaps and constraints where research would be applicable.

“Simulating a robot on a ship is a very difficult problem. There are no best practices to simulate how a robot would operate on a ship deck, in various sea states,” Goldfarb said, adding, “We want to build those best practices.” 

An overview of the Navy robotic capabilities was delivered by Dr. Thomas McKenna, a program officer in Computational Neuroscience, Bio-Inspired Autonomous Systems, Soft Robotics, Mission Capable Robots, and Cognitive Science for Human Autonomy Teaming within the Warfighter Performance Department, Human and Bioengineered Systems Division, at ONR.

McKenna is responsible for the development, funding, and management of basic and applied research programs in neural computation, computational models of cortex, computational vision, novel underwater and cross-domain vehicles, humanoid robots, and human-robot interaction. These programs produce novel computational architectures and implementations of large-scale neural systems, prototype bio-robotic systems and intelligent video surveillance technology. His program is currently developing robots for shipboard firefighting and maintenance and squad teammates for urban operations, as well as bio-inspired autonomous undersea vehicles. He also coordinates an ONR-wide program in the science of Artificial Intelligence (AI). 

“We have generated approximately 75 tasks where robots could perform on ships, ranging from ship operations, force protection, triage, damage control, services, firefighting, etc.,” McKenna said. 

According to the ONR website, the Human Interaction with Autonomous Systems program aims to create cognitively-compatible intelligent autonomous systems and robots that could serve as teammates with humans, enabling peer-to-peer collaboration among humans, robots, intelligent agents and autonomous systems. Such systems would reduce the cognitive burdens of interfaces with intelligent autonomous systems, enable supervisory control, and human training of robots and autonomous systems. 

Dr. Greg Trafton, the section head for the Human and Machine Intelligence Section in the Artificial Intelligence Center at the NRL, works on cognitive robotics, human robot interaction, and artificial intelligence. His team has been working on routine shipboard maintenance, tool retrieval, and handoff testing with robots. He provided a series of videos of the testing.

“For some robots, navigating ‘knee knocker’ obstacles are a big problem and tool use is extremely challenging,” Trafton said, explaining that the robots were tested on a platform in a lab to test stability of the robots during various sea states. “Some of the robots did very well, some not so well. We can do better. Mobility is the key. It’s a big deal.”
“We as a community need to be talking to people to bring people’s level of trust of robots, both at the high level and low level, and that’s what I am trying to do,” Trafton said.  

Trafton and his team members introduced and demonstrated Bight (a Boston Dynamics Spot quadruped robot) to Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Lisa Franchetti at her office in the Pentagon on Nov. 30. 2023.

“It provided a demonstration of the robots ability to collaborate as a teammate,” Trafton said. “Robots, especially quadrupeds, have a huge potential for shipboard maintenance, but still need tons of work and research. We need to work together.”

One of these partners is the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN). NSIN is a government program office within the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering (OSD(R&E)) that collaborates with major universities and the venture community to develop solutions that drive national security innovation. They operate two portfolios of programs and services: Talent and Venture. Together, these portfolios form a pipeline of activities and solutions that accelerate the pace of defense innovation, such as robotics. 

“NSIN’s mission is to build networks of innovators, venture capital, and academia to provide emerging tech solutions to the DoD,” said New Jersey Regional Engagement Principal at NSIN Spencer Reynolds. He connects DoD mission partners with universities, early-stage companies, and ecosystem enablers to solve DoD challenges and to enable opportunities. 

Reynolds provided a program overview explaining how the Defense innovation challenge is getting new technology from concept to product and then to the warfighter. He explained the challenges of how Defense appropriations are allocated and funded, as well as how science and technology programs can be funded. 

Following the technical exchange meeting, NSWCPD, NAWCAD LKE, and the Liberty Tech Bridge will begin building out the Shipboard Robotics Community of Practice, tying together participants across DoD, industry, and academia. Future developments include virtual monthly speakers, quarterly newsletters, and follow-on technical exchange meetings and workshops. With great feedback from all participants, the team is looking at establishing annual technical exchange meetings and workshops.

NSWCPD employs approximately 2,800 civilian engineers, scientists, technicians, and support personnel. The NSWCPD team does the research and development, test and evaluation, acquisition support, and in-service and logistics engineering for the non-nuclear machinery, ship machinery systems, and related equipment and material for Navy surface ships and submarines. NSWCPD is also the lead organization providing cybersecurity for all ship systems.