NREC then and now
NREC has partnered with equipment manufacturers, miners, and farmers to develop innovative solutions for challenging problems
UGV evolution. From left: Spinner, Crusher, APD
The National Robotics
Engineering Center (NREC) opened in 1996 as part of Carnegie Mellon' University’s Robotics
Institute (RI). Based
in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood near
the CMU campus, NREC (pronounced “en-rec”) is located
in a renovated, 100-year-old factory on a reclaimed
industrial brownfields site.
NREC was the brainchild of Red Whittaker, director of the RI’s Field
Robotics Center (FRC). He and other
FRC scientists realized that mobile robotics was mature enough for commercial use
in agriculture, construction, mining, utilities, and other areas. They collaborated
with NASA and companies such as John Deere,
the Toro Corporation, and Consol Energy to develop projects with a strong focus on applied research, setting the stage for NREC's continued emphasis on commercial and government partnerships.
Today, NREC thrives as home to the
world’s leading robotics experts, who conduct applied
research and development on dozens of innovative
projects. Many are licensed for commercialization
and are in current use in mines, ship yards, medical facilities, and more. NREC continues to collaborate with its government and industry partners to build robots that work in the real world.
From its earliest days, NREC worked closely with clients to commercialize
robotics technologies and expand them into new
markets. Several NREC-developed technologies have been transferred to their sponsors and are in daily
use generating revenue -- including systems for stripping
paint from steel hulls, inspecting conveyor belts in underground mines, evaluating drugs for central nervous system disorders, and positioning patients for radiotherapy
NREC's reputation as a leading
automation supplier to the agriculture and mining markets continues to grow. We nurture partnerships with equipment
suppliers and both large and small end users. Their efforts to improve safety, quality and productivity while lowering
costs provide many opportunities for commercializing the technologies we develop. Our deep knowledge of autonomy has been put to use in developing autonomous sprayers, tractors, harvesters, loaders, haulers, miners, and other equipment. We also collaborate with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other universities on research in agricultural automation.
NREC excels in using machine learning and computer vision to solve complex, real-world problems. Detecting cars and trucks on highways, monitoring patients in clinical trials, and inspecting harvested strawberry plants are just a few applications that fuse artificial intelligence and vision systems.
Removing People from Harm's Way
In recent conflicts, unmanned ground vehicles
(UGVs) have successfully kept military personnel out of
harm’s way. The U.S. Department of Defense is actively developing and deploying these systems. NREC is proud to be a significant contributor to this
history-making transformation in the U.S. military.
Starting in 2000, we began pursuing UGV development programs for
mobile robots and related systems. Since then, we've developed a wide range of UGVs for DARPA, the US Army and the US Marine Corps. They range from the small, lightweight Dragon Runner scout (successfully commercialized), to the mid-sized Gladiator tactical UGV, to large, highly mobile off-road UGVs like the Autonomous Platform Demonstrator (APD).
NREC has a track record of developing highly-mobile UGVs with advanced autonomy systems. The PerceptOR autonomy program and Spinner (our first heavy-duty, off-road UGV) laid the foundations for this work. Their success led to the multi-year UPI program, which built the rugged, highly-capable Crusher UGV and used it to push the limits of perception, autonomy, and machine learning. In an extended series of field experiments, Crusher autonomously navigated through difficult mountain, desert, forest, swamp, and urban terrain. The Robotic Vehicle Control Architecture (RVCA) program is creating the first end-to-end control architecture for UGVs and is using both Crusher and APD in field and operational experiments.
NREC has worked on land mine detection and developed a vision-based training program for hand-held mine detectors (successfully commercialized). Our enhanced operator assistance and situational awareness packages improve driver safety and performance for both manned and unmanned vehicles.
Our work on Tartan Racing's "Boss," winner of the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge, helped advance the state-of-the-art in autonomy for urban environments. These technologies and others that we've developed for defense programs are now being used in commercial applications.
Commitment to Education
In keeping with CMU’s academic mission, NREC offers educational
outreach programs for students from grade school through college. The Robotics
Academy involves students in a wide variety of projects — such as building
small robots — to teach math, science, engineering, physics, resource allocation,
teamwork and creative problem-solving. The Robotics Academy also trains educators in how to use robotics in the classroom and collaborates with local colleges and universities on robotics degree programs.
NREC annually hosts Pittsburgh's regional FIRST LEGO League tournament. Over a thousand middle-school
students, coaches, and parents attend this popular
educational super-event every year.
A Good Neighbor
NREC is part of the fabric of Pittsburgh’s
historic Lawrenceville neighborhood. Its founding in a long-shuttered
factory helped launch Lawrenceville’s revitalization. We worked with the City
of Pittsburgh to put in a river trail and picnic area next to our facility
and help to maintain both. We also teamed up with Friends
of the Riverfront to build a kayak/canoe launch and the Allegheny
Valley Railroad to build a parking lot at the trail head.