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University innovation center to spur autonomous systems development


block_n-8892072-7411396With $3 million from the Governor’s Office of Economic Development Knowledge Fund, the University of Nevada, Reno has established NAASIC, the Nevada Advanced Autonomous Systems Innovation Center, with the goal of creating unique industry-university partnerships to commercialize technologies in autonomous systems. This includes land-based, aerial and stationary robotic systems such as industrial robots, advanced manufacturing systems, driverless road vehicles and underwater robots.

“The vision for this initiative is to partner with the private sector to support innovation for advanced autonomous and manufacturing systems,” Manos Maragakis, dean of the College of Engineering, said. “This collaboration between our colleges and the business community will stimulate economic development.”

NAASIC is a collaboration led by higher education that involves EDAWN, the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, the manufacturing industry and K-12 and higher education programs to enhance Nevada’s workforce. The FAA designation of Nevada as one of the nation’s six test sites for autonomous aerial systems complements NAASIC plans to help build economic development.

“This has tremendous potential to become a hub of technology that will benefit the entire state,” Maragakis said. “This is a true systemic approach to economic development. A number of agencies and organizations we already work with are coming together to generate a new level of engagement. At the heart of this is autonomous systems, whether aerial, land-based or manufacturing-based robotics.”

The University has more than a dozen faculty across several departments and colleges, including engineering, business, geological sciences, cooperative extension and environmental sciences, who are contributing to the research, design, implementation and commercialization of advanced autonomous systems. The integrated effort is led by the College of Engineering.

Research projects underway include:

  • Disaster response using ground and aerial autonomous systems in collaboration with emergency managers, industry and other institutions;
  • Guide Drones for blind athletes;
  • Rangeland assessment and livestock management using UAVs;
  • Human/humanoid robot interaction studies;
  • Guidance system analysis and development for drone delivery service; and
  • Modeling wind farm inversions and downdraft flows using drones and distributed temperature sensing cables.

NAASIC will enhance student success and workforce development, and will be important in attracting business to the region.

“We have outstanding faculty dedicated to science and the community here,” Mridul Gautam, vice president for research and innovation at the University, said. “This faculty expertise and interest will be part of an innovation eco-system we are creating in our region. This will contribute to economic development and efforts to pursue tech-based solutions for the region, the city and the state.”

Innovation Hub
“As an innovation hub, it will be a link and a place for industry, faculty and students to do research and development,” Gautam said. “Ultimately every aspect of what we do at the University is part of the effort; materials, software, communications, electronics, durable goods, the legal and social aspects of autonomous systems, detecting plant diseases on arable land and even development of our seismic network – for firefighting, identifying earthquake faults and other environmental monitoring.”

The University has added three new faculty members specifically for autonomous systems education in the manufacturing field and for autonomous systems and vehicles. Warren Rapp, previously with the Nevada Institute of Autonomous Systems, has been hired as the new business director and a technical director to coordinate research projects will be identified..

“The College has faculty with expertise in these areas and by adding more through NAASIC, plus our new business manager, we are forming the critical mass needed to pursue industrial and federal opportunities,” Maragakis said.

“From my previous job’s perspective as the program manager for northern Nevada UAS testing, the University is already known as an evolving leader in the UAV and autonomous systems fields of study,” Rapp said. “From the inception of their minor degree program this year to supporting the testing efforts of new companies coming to northern Nevada, and now NAASIC, few universities across the country can match this commitment for success.”

The College of Engineering began a new minor degree program in Unmanned Autonomous Systems in January.

New Center Location
NAASIC eventually will be located in the University’s newly acquired building downtown at Sinclair and Stewart streets near the Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum. It will be a launch pad for gatherings of industry representatives where they meet faculty and develop partnerships for research and development. It will be a site for undergraduate senior capstone projects and provide space for students, faculty and businesses to innovate, design and develop autonomous systems.

“We are very excited to be developing our new, downtown innovation center with space for NAASIC,” Heidi Gansert, the University’s executive director for external affairs, said. “We anticipate public private-partnerships that include students, faculty and the private sector will add to the ever increasing vibrancy of this great Reno area. With the Discovery Museum across the street, we look forward to new outreach opportunities for K-12 students as well.”

Industry collaborations already underway include with Drone America, Insitu, Flirtey and GloCal Venture Capital.

The University is participating in the statewide Jumpstart to UAS program encouraging students to expand their knowledge and awareness of the aviation and aerospace industry and strengthening Nevada’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) initiatives related to unmanned aircraft systems and aerospace education. The University’s first Jumpstart event was a UAS summer camp for middle and high school students sponsored by the College of Engineering.

The GOED Knowledge Fund is also providing $500,000 to encourage collaborative autonomous systems projects between the University of Nevada, Reno, University of Nevada, Las Vegas and DRI. Several collaborations are underway, and more proposals are in the works and will include industry partnerships.

“We are also working alongside the University’s Technology Transfer Office to align with their successful community engagement and commercialization programs,” George Bebis, chair of the Computer Science and Engineering Department, said. “The center is geared to putting business in touch with experts at the university. There is great potential for student and faculty start-ups and industry collaborations.”

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