Navy lab researches cutting-edge technologies in ocean, rain forest without leaving the office

Thursday - 3/22/2012, 9:52pm EDT

Alan Schultz, director, Laboratory for Autonomous Systems Research

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The Navy opened the doors last week on a new laboratory tasked with cutting-edge research on robotics and unmanned systems.

And befitting its science-fiction-like focus, the Laboratory for Autonomous Systems Research, located at the Naval Research Laboratory's main Washington, D.C.site, houses its own state-of-the-art facilities.

The lab simulates a number variety of environments inside. (Photo: U.S. Naval Research Laboratory)

The lab contains a greenhouse that recreates a southeast Asian rain forest, a a 45-by-25-foot pool used to generate directional waves and a facility that replicates desert conditions.

Alan Schultz, the director of the new lab, told In Depth with Francis Rose the emphasis on autonomy in unmanned systems — such as drones — is a new development.

Most of the military's current "unmanned" systems are actually tele-operated, Schultz said, meaning a person is actually controlling the system, usually at some remove.

In contrast, "By autonomous," he said, "we mean that these systems actually have some initiative, can actually do a certain amount of the work themselves without constantly being told what to do."

The lab's littoral bay, which Schultz likened to a "small ocean." (Photo: U.S. Naval Research Laboratory)

Simulated environments save money

The lab's state-of-the-art environmental bays, which mimic a number of real-life climates, actually save money in research and development. Researchers don't have to leave the office to test out new systems in life-like conditions, Schultz said.

"This helps save the cost of going out to the field every time we want to test something," he added.

In the littoral bay, the large pool — or as Schultz described it, "small ocean," — comes complete with a simulated beachfront and is used to research small underwater vehicles engineered to operate as fish do.

The tropical high bay mimics a Southeast Asian rain forest. (Photo: U.S. Naval Research Laboratory)

"They actually have pectoral fins, which give good manueverability at low speeds or in surf environments," Schultz said.

Navy scientists have also developed the ability to generate electricity from microbial activity on the sea floor, Schultz said, essentially creating a series of sensors with a limitless power supply.

The Naval lab has long been working on futuristic projects, Schultz said. The lab was originally the brainchild of celebrated inventor Thomas Edison.

The building is staffed by Schultz and three other employees. But the facility is open to entirety of the Naval Research Laboratory to work on specific projects.

"The building gives all these scientists a chance to come together and work together in a group to solve bigger problems," Schultz said. "So, they can start integrating between sensors, power and energy, the algorithms, the platforms."

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