Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, a private university in Daytona Beach, Florida, is one of eight schools currently participating in the Naval Engineering Education Consortium (NEEC) program with Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division.
The project, “Robust Multi-Domain Situational Awareness through Sensor Fusion,” is being overseen and directed by Dr. Eric Coyle, professor of mechanical engineering at Embry-Riddle. The Carderock mentor for the project is Dr. Timothy Coats, an unmanned surface vehicle (USV) controls engineer in the Combatant Craft Division.
The overall goal of the project is to find ways to integrate sensor data from different domains, such as unmanned submarines and autonomous vehicles, to be able to classify and detect underwater and surface components of vessels. The team intends to develop a comprehensive picture to be able to identify obstacles as well as underwater threats.
“While our mechanical engineering program is relatively new – less than 20 years old – we have a well-developed robotics program,” Coyle said. “When I came on board we increased our emphasis on research.”
For nearly 15 years, Embry-Riddle has been involved with competitions sponsored by the Office of Naval Research (ONR), including RoboBoat, RoboSub and RobotX. Because of that involvement, they have been working on autonomy solutions to situational awareness for surface vehicles.
Due to this involvement, we realized there was a commonality to data from the surface vehicles to the unmanned submarines and aerial vehicles, so we decided to collect data from both platforms and compare them,” Coyle said.
“We are currently working to turn the data for aerial vehicles into identified and classified objects using the same approaches we used with the other vehicles,” he said. “There are a couple of unique pre-processing steps for each platform, but otherwise the processing techniques can be the same on each platform.”
It was at the ONR competitions that Coyle was able to recruit his team of eight total students to assist him with this project.
He currently has four graduate students and one undergraduate student involved in the project, and three former students have graduated.
“I have an easy time choosing the right students,” Coyle said. “With so many students involved with these different competitions, it is easy for me to see which ones have a true interest and backgrounds that fit.”
One of these students, Taylor Ayars, is in his final year of his graduate degree, studying mechanical engineering for robotics systems.
“Initially, my goal going into master’s degree was to immerse myself in robotics as much as I could and as fast as I could,” Ayars said. “My role in the RobotX team has been the main person in charge of the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). I have seen it from its infant stages to its maturity. It started as a regular hexacopter, I designed a custom payload sensor for it and implemented and integrated it with the software we are using.”
The NEEC project that Coyle and his graduate students are working on is a three-year process. The first year comprised data collection, the second year was focused on data fusion, and the final year — where they are currently at — consists of deploying their research and putting it to the test.
“The final demonstration we are planning for year three is a scouting mission,” Coyle said. “The unmanned surface vehicle (USV) will have conducted a prior scan of the area, but the UAV will fly ahead of the USV and provide real-time updates to the USV, with the USV altering its plan as a result of the updates and what it sees itself.”
With the help of his graduate students, Coyle has developed software that synchronizes data that is gathered by unmanned boats and underwater vehicles. The data is collected by taking multiple measurements of objects from different sensors. However, for the data to be valuable, it needs to be condensed into a single format.
“What we are doing, and what needs to be done in order for the data to be valuable, is to turn the data into actionable intelligence that the Navy can use, which leverages the advantages of the data source,” Coyle said.
Furthermore, using the collected data, they are able to create multi-domain maps of the surrounding environment, providing situational awareness to the unmanned vehicles.
“By using these platforms, we’ll be able to accurately detect obstacles and other hazardous objects of interest both above and below the surface,” said James Hendrickson, former graduate student of Coyle’s and former RobotX team member. “This gives us a huge benefit in terms of how well we can classify different objects when they present themselves.”
Coyle and his students have been able to further their research by using unmanned aerial systems to collect data.
“Over the past year of working with the RobotX team, I have been able to get the UAV to a point where it can perform real-time situation awareness and detect and classify objects such as buoys, docks and light towers,” Ayars said. “It has been really cool to see this project all the way through.”
Coyle said he is excited for the completion of the project, as he greatly wants to see the team’s hard work put to use.
“It’s not enough to know that what we’ve been working towards can happen,” Coyle said. “We want to actually see it happen.”