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NEWS | Aug. 12, 2022

NUWC Division Newport, Baylor University students aim to advance autonomous capabilities of robots

By NUWC Division Newport Public Affairs

Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division Newport is partnering with Baylor University on a Naval Engineering Education Consortium (NEEC) project to improve the autonomous capabilities of robots.

The objective of this project, titled, “Improved Robot Autonomy using Neuromorphic-Based Stochastic Computing,” is to use novel computing techniques to provide improved autonomous robot capabilities by fundamentally changing the way onboard computation is performed. A critical step to this is understanding how to exploit the sensed environment in novel and efficient ways.

“One of the NEEC students is focused on building an artificial cochlea and developing circuitry to process sound the way the brain and cochlea work together to process sound,” Dr. John DiCecco, a mentor on the project and Division Newport engineer, said. “One of the key problems is how do you get this device to encode the information? The human cochlea senses, encodes and performs some very important preprocessing of the auditory information, so we’re trying to figure out how to do the same utilizing neuromorphic computing.”

NEEC, established by NAVSEA and executed by the warfare centers, aims to develop and attract new professionals into the broad technical fields associated with current and future U.S. Navy ships and submarines. Through grant awards, the program brings professors and students together with scientists and engineers at all 10 warfare center divisions to explore solutions to the Navy’s most pressing technological challenges.

This summer, three Baylor University students, Arvind Chithambaram, Eric Zietz and Luke Mello, had the unique opportunity to continue their NEEC project by working alongside technical experts at Division Newport as participants in the Naval Research Enterprise Internship Program (NREIP).

The students worked on-site from May 31 to Aug. 5 with DiCecco and fellow project mentor Dr. Eugene Chabot. Baylor professor Dr. Scott Koziol provided additional guidance as well.

“This has been a great opportunity,” Zietz said. “In addition to working at NUWC, Dr. Chabot has taken us to Brown University for robotics discussion where we had the chance to hear about where neuromorphic robotics is today. I’ve learned things during this internship that I can’t learn anywhere else.”

Using circuit and algorithm co-development, computer simulation and circuit hardware experiments, the group assessed the performance of a proposed method utilizing a bio-inspired, neuromorphic engineering-version of stochastic computing. The proposed method's computation capabilities were compared to standard digital implementation methods, such as image processing and neural networks.

“The interns were exposed to leading-edge tools and environments, such as the Spot robot and Robotic Operating System (ROS), to enable quick experimentation and leverage tools in academia and industry,” Chabot said. “This work provided a solid foundation for understanding Navy challenges by immersing them in complex autonomy concepts and operating in unstructured and dynamic environments.”

The goal of the project is to develop better onboard computation systems for small, autonomous robots performing missions such as surveying, mine detection and mine countermeasures (MCM). This is important because onboard computation is limited due to size and power constraints, and computing is a critical capability for autonomous systems performing these missions.

If successful, potential applications could include integration into systems to improve navigation, acoustic localization or underwater sound tracking in challenging environments.

“Within the first week here they threw us right into it and it’s been a lot of fun,” Chithambaram said. “In the middle of the internship, we hit a mini wall on the project, but then suddenly we had a breakthrough and we’ve had a lot of success recently.”

The genesis of this project dates back to 2014, when DiCecco and Chabot began investigating neuromorphic computing as part of an In-house Laboratory Independent Research (ILIR) at Division Newport. Two years later, the scope of the ILIR expanded beyond the walls of Division Newport.

“For the most part, this all came about through the process of establishing a working relationship with Baylor during the evolution of that initial ILIR,” DiCecco said. “It morphed from there into a NEEC program. It’s to the point that Scott has had three students graduate while working on the project, two more grad students working on it now and he’s recruiting more for the pipeline.”

NUWC Newport is the oldest warfare center in the country, tracing its heritage to the Naval Torpedo Station established on Goat Island in Newport Harbor in 1869. Commanded by Capt. Chad Hennings, NUWC Newport maintains major detachments in West Palm Beach, Florida, and Andros Island in the Bahamas, as well as test facilities at Seneca Lake and Fisher's Island, New York, Leesburg, Florida, and Dodge Pond, Connecticut.

Join our team! NUWC Division Newport, one of the 20 largest employers in Rhode Island, employs a diverse, highly trained, educated, and skilled workforce. We are continuously looking for engineers, scientists, and other STEM professionals, as well as talented business, finance, logistics and other support experts who wish to be at the forefront of undersea research and development. Please connect with NUWC Division Newport Recruiting at this site- and follow us on LinkedIn @NUWC-Newport and on Facebook @NUWCNewport.