Tuesday, November 26, 2019

2019-11-26: MIT Students Visit the Autonomy Incubator for Continued Search and Rescue Research

Katherine, Kyel, and Yulun analyze the programming during the test.

In October, three MIT students visited the Autonomy Incubator again to continue their research with search and rescue missions.

The three students, Katherine Lie, Kyel Ok, and Yulun Tian, have visited several times in the past. In fact, you can read about one of their visits here!

Fortunately for us, the Virginia weather wasn't quite too cold yet, and we could bear the outdoors without the risk of potentially freezing.

The specific goal this time around was to test an integrated real-time exchange of information of the UAVs. The team added two new modifications that are unique to how we normally run our search and rescue tests. The first of which was the person-detection itself, and Loc Tran actually printed a life-sized portrait of his son to act as the lost hiker.

Loc's cardboard-son was our stand-in missing person.

As hysterical as that is, it was actually very successful!

The person detection was running on-board, and they were able to get some great detections of the person and even the co-pilot.

The drone successfully detected the fake Felix.

This was their first time testing with the on-board person detection, rather than off-board, so the drone was actually flying around with a camera and doing the search.

"It was a nice way to tie everything together because now it's doing the actual detecting," Loc said. "It puts a stamp on the search part of the search and rescue mission."

The second modification was "a bit more behind the scenes," as Loc said. Since they were testing with on-board map merging instead of off-board, the two vehicles were creating one map each and then aligning them together to make one unified map. This allows them to share information so that the two drones could differentiate where they've already searched and where they are in space at any given moment. This means they're no longer independent of each other but are integrated.

Before, when the LIDAR was scanning, it was making a 3D map. Now they're doing a 2D approximation and using that to align the two maps.

Other than the MIT students and Loc, there are a few others that had a huge hand in the effort. Chester Dolph has helped out a lot throughout the few years that they have been working on the project.

"It was a smashing success!" Chester said. "It was a really awesome project, and I like that it solved an interesting problem space. Getting all of these sensors to work together in real-time is very tricky, but the MIT folks developed a great code."

Pilots Brian Duvall and Zak Johns are also to thank, as well as Ralph Williams and Chris Meak.

Naturally, the group came together to take a photo at the end of the
research day.

This mission was one of five winners of the AUVSI XCELLENCE Humanitarian Award in May.

Friday, August 9, 2019

2019-08-09: Free Flyers: Autonomous Coordinated Operations


This team of interns are simulating small satellite free flyers for coordinated operations.  The achieved some major things this summer, and I was very happy to capture exactly what they've been working on!

Check it out above!

Thursday, August 8, 2019

2019-08-08: Sarah Woodham: Exit Presentation Summer 2019


Sarah Woodham, a rising senior at Virginia Tech, worked with HFACS (Human Factors Analysis and Classification System) this summer.

Watch her exit presentation to learn more!

2019-08-08: Kathleen Clark: Exit Presentation Summer 2019


Kathleen, or Katie, Clark presented AMP, A Maze Project, where she worked towards understanding human trust in autonomous machines.

This summer, she developed various mazes to test individual differences and communication styles of humans so they can better trust autonomous machines.

2019-08-08: Pathways Intern Ben Hargis on Inertial Transfer for In-Space Assembly




This is Benjamin Hargis' third time interning with NASA, and this summer he is working on several different aspects in regards to In-Space Assembly. More specifically, he is diving deep into the concept of inertial transfer, the passing of an object from one manipulator to the next using the object's own inertia.

One of his main goals is to create a demonstration that incorporates all of the different concepts he and his colleagues have explored this summer.

Watch his Spotlight to learn more!

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

2019-08-06: Nicole Oman's Journey From Nature to Space


Nicole Oman
At the end of July, Nicole Oman will be a part of the Ai for a full year as an Administrative Assistant. After earning her degree in Outdoor Recreation from Northern Michigan University, she did not exactly go down the path she thought she was going to take.

"Life just happens, and sometimes you go in different directions," Nicole said.

After graduating, she began a job in the Newport News area, which led to a position as Administrative Assistant for Christopher Newport University.

After ten years of working for CNU, she decided to find a more career-focused occupation that satisfied her fascination with space exploration. As a result, Nicole is currently working as an Administration Assistant for our very own Autonomous Systems Branch (aka Autonomy Incubator) as well as for the Electromagnetics and Sensors Branch. Here at NASA LaRC, she found an environment that is moving forward in technology, challenges her thinking, and keeps her on her toes. From one branch to another, she can go from processing travel orders to getting approvals to buy hardware and software.

If there is anything to learn from Nicole Oman, its that you become invaluable when you're a creative problem solver and team player.

By NASA volunteer, Trayda Murakami

Monday, August 5, 2019

2019-08-05: Payton Heyman Exit Presentation Summer 2019


This summer, I made cartoons of interns, a video campaign, and hung out with more robots!

With this being my third internship here at the Ai, I had a lot of ideas and goals going into the summer. Watch and listen to my exit presentation, where I discuss the struggles and successes of this season.

2019-08-05: Liam Chapin on Building Software for In-Space Assembly


Liam Chapin is a student at Virginia Tech and a five time NASA intern. Over the years, he has worked on a plethora of robots for the In-Space Assembly project.

Friday, July 26, 2019

2017-07-26: Tyler Garrett, Alex Glandon, and Sami Mian: Exit Presentation Summer 2019


Tyler Garrett, Alex Glandon, and Sami Mian have spent their summer working on simulating small satellite free flyers for coordinated operations.

Watch their exit presentation to learn more about their research! It even includes a sneak peak of a demo!

Thursday, July 25, 2019

2019-07-25: H.O.M.E. Team Exit Presentation Summer 2019


H.O.M.E. stands for Highly Organized Multi-agent Enclosures. Student interns, Chuck Sullivan, Samantha Glassner, and Aaron Shepard worked very closely with Jim Neilan this summer on this project.

Watch their exit presentation to learn about their work with soft robots!

2019-07-25: Jessie Robinson Exit Presentation Summer 2019


Jessie Robinson managed to complete a lot during her 10 week internship here at NASA Langley. She worked closely with augmented reality but experimented with a lot more, as well.

With one of her mentors being Lisa Le Vie, an Ai team member, she worked very closely with our branch. Thanks for everything you've accomplished so far, and good luck starting your Master's program at Virginia Tech!

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

2019-07-23: Jamie O'Brien Exit Presentation Summer 2019


Unfortunately, all internships must eventually come to an end, and our friend, Jamie O'Brien, has nearly reached the finish line.

Watch her exit presentation, where she explains her summer work with the In-Space Assembly project.

Monday, July 22, 2019

2019-07-22: Jamie O'Brien and Her Multi-Agent Inertial Transfer System


This summer, Jamie O'Brien has been working diligently to create a launcher for her multi-agent inertial transfer system.

With only a week left and an exit presentation coming soon, she's been preparing to close out her internship for the summer. Don't get too upset, though, because there's a new spotlight video out, and she's the star!

Thursday, July 18, 2019

2019-07-18: Charles "Chase" Noren Exit Presentation Summer 2019


After many months here at the Autonomy Incubator, Chase Noren's internship has reached the finale. Soon, he will be embarking on a new journey of life, where he will be starting his Ph.D program at Carnegie Melon University!

Watch his exit presentation to learn about his work with In Space Assembly, using scanning LIDAR for local environment mapping.

Friday, July 12, 2019

2019-07-12: Ai Team Member Walter Waltz Gloriously Finishes his Ph.D

Cheers to the month of Walter!

Walter Waltz has been a part of our team for a whole year now, and, along with his anniversary, he also just gained one of the most major victories achievable by man or woman: his Doctor of Philosophy!

This triumph took infinite amounts of hard work and dedication over the past few years.

Walter started his journey at Florida State University, where he received his Bachelor's degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mathematics. He then proceeded to further his education at the University of Florida, where he received a Master's Degree in Mechanical Engineering and pushed his focus towards robotics for his Ph.D program.

The Autonomy Incubator team is incredibly proud and happy to congratulate him on his success.

Some of us even got to take him out to lunch to celebrate!

Prior to joining us at the Ai, he used to work with many different robots that operated in hazardous environments.  Now, he is part of the In-Space Assembly project! He has been focusing mainly on motion planning so that the robot can successfully undertake each step of the assembly process.  Three important aspects he focuses on include object detection, collision avoidance, and trajectory execution.

This week Walter's parents came to NASA Langley to visit him and see his work in person.  In fact, his father works with robots as well!

Getting a Ph.D is a long and difficult process, so we praise Walter for sticking through the challenge and finishing with nothing but success!

*Queue applause here*

Thursday, July 11, 2019

2019-07-11: Chase Noren on Autonomous Robot Operations for In Space Assembly


Charles "Chase" Noren first came to the Ai in 2017 and has kept coming back ever since.

Learn about his work with autonomous robot operations for the In Space Assembly project!

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

2019-07-02: Ai Team Members Test GPS Emulator

PI Ralph Williams and intern Jeremy Castagno discussing the test.

On a hunt to find a fellow intern, I was pleasantly surprised to find Jeremy Castagno and Ralph Williams in the control room of the flight area preparing a test.

I let out a quiet squeal of excitement and left to quickly grab the camera to document the latest and greatest test in the Autonomy Incubator.

The goal for today was to assess the VICONTM coordinate system. Our software team built a program that allows for the computer to emulate a GPS and inform the quadrotor of where it is in the world.

"We essentially pretend that we're a GPS device, send it through their receiver, and it actually believes it! It's really cool," Jeremy explained.  What is most interesting about it is the fact that the drone cannot tell whether it is using real GPS or our emulated version!

The computer program can mask itself as a GPS system.

Normally, you would operate in a cartesian coordinate space (X, Y, Z), but since we are using GPS we have to translate it.  Additionally, in order to command and communicate to Pixhawk® you would use North East Down (NED), which is its own internal cartesian coordinate system.

"As the VICONTM sees that its moving in this area, we convert those coordinates to GPS coordinates, send it to the drone, and then it turns those GPS coordinates into its own internal cartesian system."

Ralph walked the drone around the area to see the effectiveness of the
coordinate systems.

All in all, their main goal is basically to just make sure that they can understand and translate between the VICONTM coordinate system and its own internal coordinate system.  They need to be aligned and effectively working.


Pixhawk is a trademark of Lorenz Meir.

Monday, July 1, 2019

2019-07-01: Pathways Intern Jeremy Castagno on Safe Rooftop Landings



After a brief internship last summer, Jeremy Castagno has returned for twelve weeks to continue his research on safe landings for autonomous vehicles in flight.

Watch his Spotlight Interview to better understand his goals and why his research is critical for the Autonomy Incubator!

Monday, June 24, 2019

2019-06-24: Hey, Javier, What Have You Been Up To?



Javier Puig-Navarro has been a remarkable member of the Autonomy Incubator team since 2014.  It has been wonderful working with him for so many years while he does research for his Ph.D in aerospace engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.

His two main focuses relate to research for search and rescue missions, along with the ATTRACTOR project.

Watch his spotlight interview above to learn more about his work!

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

2019-06-19: Ai's Latest Demo for Multiple Agencies

Several representatives offered some interesting questions and points
relevant to our research.

Some of the most exciting moments here at the Autonomy Incubator include when we get to offer demonstrations to curious individuals and groups. This week, representatives from several different government agencies including NRL and AFRL, visited to take a tour of NASA Langley, and stopped by our branch.

We had the pleasure of showing them our flight room, which is still in the works of being renovated (and we can't wait to start using it again soon)!

Danette Allen showing off our flight room and wire maze.

Danette Allen, Walter Waltz, Sherif Shazly, and Ben Hargis each got to present a little bit about their research, speaking on behalf of their recent accomplishments and goals.

Since our main focus at the Ai includes multi-agent collaborative autonomous assembly, the team discussed what we have accomplished to date with the In-Space Assembly (ISA) project through a sub-scale demonstration.  For this demonstration, we worked with multiple quarter-scale trusses and a single robotic arm.

We do have to do a lot of research via simulation, and I had the pleasure of constructing a few videos so our team members could demonstrate what that looks like.

Danette walking through one of the videos.

Danette passed the baton to Walter, so he could share what he has been working on for the last year.  He described his research with single-agent autonomous assembly, where he focuses on motion planning so that the robot can successfully undertake each step of the assembly process. The four major aspects that his work has an emphasis on are object detection, motion planning, collision avoidance, and trajectory execution.

Walter Waltz has been at the Ai for about a year.

The robotic arm will pick up a truss from a random location and place it in a predefined location.  As it is going through the mission, there is a dynamic sequence of different stages that it will go through, so that he and the other researchers can rigorously test new algorithms, see different planners, and so on.

For these autonomous behaviors, it is extremely important to consider the motion planning and execution. One of the most unique elements about some of the trajectories is that they will observe constraints, which will slightly complicate the planning and execution. 

Of course, all of this development begins in a simulation environment, as previously established. This is so Walter and his research team can get a better idea of the algorithms and how they can form requirements, leading towards validation and the rigorous classification that is necessary for flying to space.

Sherif is one of the robotics software developers on the ISA team.

Following Walter, Sherif took the spotlight to discuss his focus on using 3D point clouds to generate occupancy grids of the collision scene of the robot's workspace. 

The algorithm encodes information about whether the subspace is occupied, unoccupied or unexplored, and by using that information, it creates plans to avoid not only hitting the truss assembly but also any object.  It is very efficient in doing so, which allows us to share the planning scene efficiently as well. This is very important for the ISA researchers because we, as a team, have limited resources, and we do not want to waste what we have and can get.  We are hoping to expand this idea through the inertial transfer concept, which was further detailed by Ben.

This is Ben's second summer with the Ai as a Pathways intern.

Ben defined inertial transfer as "the concept of moving untethered objects through space using the object's own inertia."

Through the use of a concept video from the RAMSES project, he was able to give a detailed description of how it works.  First, the front manipulator arm transfers an instrument panel from storage to the manipulator that is in charge of installing the panel. The efficiency here is gained by free-flying mass, and there are additional structures that allow these manipulators to travel the distance shown in the graphic.  As soon as this object leaves the grasp of the manipulator, it can thus be tracked depending on what metrology strategy is employed.

As a relatively new project, our exploration unveils some questions that need to be answered, such as what kind of infrastructure is best for communication, what information needs to be passed and when, and what are our metrology strategies are- what are we going to measure?

All of these steps are very important in mitigating risks so that we can learn from each consideration. There is always going to be some randomness to the process, which is why it is important to have contingency plans for failed grasps. This can range from anything like awkwardly grasping an object and ending up at an impasse, or a near miss.

A major goal, of course, is to reduce and mitigate as much of this risk as possible.

It was the Ai's pleasure to present another demo and answer any questions that our visitor's asked.  They also made some very useful points for us to consider in the future.

Thank you ISA community, we hope to see you again!

Friday, June 14, 2019

2019-06-14: New VICON Cameras Take Our Robotic Arm to the Next Level

One of the two cameras built above the stage.

We are always more than happy to begin testing new gadgets and technology. With the arrival of six new VICONTM cameras for tracking and motion capture in our sub-scale robot area, Kyle McQuarry and Sherif Shazly have been working diligently to set them up so that we can improve our research and abilities with the beloved robotic arm.

One of the new VICONTM cameras sits in the wall behind the arm.

Kyle McQuarry cleaning up cords from the top right camera.

Along with the VICONTM cameras, we have also gained some new KinectTM sensors.  These are cameras that give you point-cloud images so that you can view a 3D representation of the world.  This is a huge advantage, as described by Sherif, because prior to adding them, they were essentially working off of assumptions and statistically publishing where they thought objects were in space, but now they can be even more precise.

Point-cloud information is already very accurate, but now the world frame would be even more accurate in the correct frame of reference.

These point-could images can also give you octree representations, in which the octomap takes dense information and filters it down into tiny boxes, as you can see below.  The areas that are colored green are mesh and the rainbow boxes are octrees.

The rainbow boxes are octrees.

"The VICONTM cameras haven't been added to the pipeline yet," Sherif explained, "but hopefully we can use them to give the position of the Kinect sensors to get centimeter accurate point-cloud information."

Once the VICONTM cameras begin to be used, they will need to be calibrated every single day.  They use a wand with retro-reflective tracking points lining it and wave it around until calibration is verified.  Then you place the wand in the origin position next to the robotic arm.

Our robotic arm and connect sensors are set up on a stage with the VICON
cameras around it.

Next week, we will be giving a demonstration for Roberta Ewart on how each aspect works together for In-Space Assembly.  It is more than exciting to be able to show it all off.

Friday, June 7, 2019

2019-06-07: It's Summer, and the Interns are Back!

The Excellent Eight

The summer has officially arrived and B1230 is filled with this season's interns.  We are welcoming a few new faces, while also opening our arms back up to some former friends.

Let's meet everyone!

Payton Heyman

First off, I must reintroduce myself.  My name is Payton Heyman and I'm returning for my third internship under Danette Allen!  I just finished my freshman year at the Savannah College of Art and Design where I am majoring in Social Strategy and Management with a minor in Film Production.  I am more than happy to return to NASA to continue creating video and blog content, as well as running the social media platforms: Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Javier Puig-Navarro

Javier Puig-Navarro has been with the Ai since 2014. While working towards his Ph.D at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaigne, he has been a very important part of our team.  He is continuing to do research in time critical coordination and path planning for multiple unmanned vehicles.

Jeremy Castagno

After spending a few weeks with us last summer, Jeremy Castagno returned to the Ai about three weeks ago to continue his work!  He received his Bachelor's degree in Chemical Engineering from Brigham Young University and currently is a Ph.D candidate at the University of Michigan, where he has now completed three years and attained his Master's in Robotics.  He will be continuing his work with emergency landings for Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), aiming for autonomous machines to be more humanlike in making decisions, especially when it comes to landing and risk assessments. He is working a lot with multi-modal data fusion with modalities including the depth information and the RGB camera information.


Ben Hargis also made his triumphant return to the Ai in mid MayHe is a Ph.D student at Tennessee Technological University, studying mechanical engineering with a focus in robotics.  This summer he is working on a feasibility study for inertial transport, where they will be creating a multi-agent system that can transport objects successfully in a zero gravity environment.

Chase Noren

Chase Noren returned for another internship back in January, and he is staying through July.  In August, he will be starting his Ph.D program at Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute.  During his time here, he is assisting a metrology study for future In Space Assembly missions.  The main goal is to better inform our understanding of how autonomous systems will be utilized in space.

Jamie O'Brien

Jamie O'Brien arrived mid May and is a new face to the Ai.  She is a rising junior at the Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts, where she is studying electrical and computer engineering.  This summer she will be working with Chase and Ben on the inertial transport project.  She, along with Ben and Chase, are preparing a demonstration to exhibit some of the results of the study.

Katie Clark

Katie Clark is a rising senior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston.  She will be spending her first summer at the Ai working with Lisa Le Vie, where she will be studying interactions between humans and robots. Through this study, she will be categorizing people's reactions to the different transparency levels, as well as quantifying minimum trust levels for different tasks.

Sarah Woodham

Sarah Woodham is a rising senior at Virginia Tech, where she is majoring in Mathematics with a minor in Computer Science.  This is her first internship with us and will be working very closely with Natalia Alexandrov and Rob Moreland at NASA Headquarters in DC. Throughout her internship, she will be "cleaning and mashing data sets from the NASA Human Factors Analysis and Classification System (HFACS) and the Safety Culture Survey," which will then "be used by contractors to visualize and analyze the data using Power BI."

All of the interns are excited to take on the summer with new projects and goals in mind! Make sure to stay up to date!