Innovation Center connects community to autonomous systems research

Now in its second year, the Nevada Advanced Autonomous Systems Innovation Center has hired key personnel and is getting unmanned systems in the air.

Innevation Center

The University Innevation Center, located in downtown Reno, is NAASIC's new home.

You may still be a few years away from having a pizza delivered by drone, but it's already started to get crowded up in the skies. A news release from the Federal Aviation Administration reported that pilot sightings of unmanned aircraft jumped from 238 in all of 2014 to more than 560 in just the first seven months of 2015.

All that traffic requires a new kind of traffic cop.

The University announced in August that it is one of a handful of organizations participating in the first phase of the NASA Ames Unmanned Aerial Systems Traffic Management project to enable safer use of low-altitude airspace, of 500 feet and below, where autonomous aerial vehicles, helicopters, gliders and other general aircraft are operating.

"With all of the many uses being developed for unmanned aerial systems, air-traffic nearer to the ground has the potential to become very crowded," said Warren Rapp, business director for the University's Nevada Advanced Autonomous Systems Innovation Center. "We're pleased to be part of this leading-edge, forward-thinking project."

NAASIC personnel expanding, building research expertise

Rapp, who joined NAASIC in October of 2014, has been assembling a team of researchers and engineers who work with private industry to collaborate on solutions to technical problems relating to autonomous systems.

A new Chief Engineer, Richard Kelley, joined NAASIC over the summer. Kelley is the lead scientist developing the software that will serve as a communications bridge between an unmanned autonomous vehicle and NASA's traffic management system.

Research leads are also in place for key areas. Thrust area leaders from the University's academic faculty include Monica Nicolescu, heading the Controls and Systems area; Scott Tyler, heading Computing Sensing and Communications Sensing; Yantao Shen leading Advanced Manufacturing and 3D Printing; and Eelke Folmer directing Applications research.

While much of the media buzz has surrounded aerial systems, NAASIC emphasizes robotics and ground-based autonomous systems as well, particularly as they relate to applications in advanced manufacturing.

"The College of Engineering is growing because Dean Maragakis is bringing in the people they need to support advanced technology," said Rapp. "We're going to grow in areas that are relevant to industry."

NAASIC moves to Innevation Center in downtown Reno

The Center also moved into its new home in downtown Reno in July - the University of Nevada, Reno Innevation Center, which houses NAASIC as well as collaborative maker space and meeting rooms for industry.

"The Center opening is huge," said Rapp. "To utilize all the great talent we have here, we want to be able to showcase that in the right environment. [Vice President for Research and Innovation] Mridul Gautum and [Executive Director of External Relations] Heidi Gansert have been instrumental in making this come out the way we want."

NAASIC's new home in downtown Reno enables it to more fully integrate into the Reno community. In addition to connecting with businesses and entrepreneurs, NAASIC is capitalizing on interest in UAVs to promote K-12 STEM outreach.

Community outreach key to mission

The center has a mobile Drone Zone that provides a space enclosed with netting where Rapp and his team can fly their UAVs. The Drone Zone has visited schools and local events, including the National Championship Air Races in Reno, to allow community members to see drones in action.

"Our intent is to also visit smaller communities eventually like Winnemucca, Schurz, Yerington, Fallon, and so on," said Rapp. "Many of those communities have never seen a UAV in real life. K-12 outreach and STEM are very important missions for NAASIC, and now that we have some infrastructure in place, we will start making our community visits."

Community outreach is key to how Rapp sees NAASIC fulfilling its mission of catalyzing business development and economic diversification. An after school program for area high schools is in the works, and Rapp has been visiting area elementary and middle schools to demonstrate robotics and autonomous systems.

"We want to get them excited about science and math," he said. "It's another link of the University into the community. NAASIC wants to be a part of that too."