New Caltech autonomous systems center features drone research

By Patrick C. Miller | October 25, 2017

The California Institute of Technology (Caltech) this week opened a new Center for Autonomous Systems and Technologies (CAST) in Pasadena—a 10,000-square-foot facility designed to advance research on drones, robotics, driverless cars and machine learning.

Researchers from the university’s Division of Engineering and Applied Science (EAS), Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences (GPS) and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) will collaborate to create the next generation of autonomous systems.

Work in the fields of drone research, autonomous exploration and bio-inspired systems will cover technologies ranging from prosthetic legs that use machine learning to automatically adjust to a wearer's gait to a flying, self-driven ambulance.

"The goal is to teach autonomous systems to think independently and react accordingly, preparing them for the rigors of the world outside of the lab," said Mory Gharib, CAST director and professor of aeronautics and bioinspired engineering.

According to Caltech, the facility will be a living experiment. While engineers construct and test drones, robots within CAST will learn to help run the facility—all while being observed by 46 cameras that provide complete coverage of the interior, tracking each robot's motion down to within 100 microns (about the thickness of a human hair).

The CAST team includes more than two dozen engineers and scientists whose work will be guided in part by scientists and other stakeholders that will benefit from the advancement of autonomous systems.

For example, by collaborating with seismologists and first responders, engineers could develop a swarm of flying sentinel drones that automatically activate during an earthquake to rapidly scan damaged areas and relay information about the location of injured people in need of medical attention.

"The CAST team will also work on the next generation of drones and robots to explore the solar system, including submersible vehicles designed to operate in the ice-covered oceans of Europa, a moon of Jupiter," said Woody Fischer, CAST steering committee member and geology professor.

CAST is also working on the development of an autonomous flying ambulance for urban applications.

"This isn't just as simple as creating a UAV big enough to carry a person,” Gharib said. “You need a fault-tolerant vehicle that can adapt autonomously to shifting weather conditions and navigate through skies without colliding with other UAVs. You need the best in aerospace engineering, machine learning, GPS-free navigation—and all of it scalable.”