NERVE Center Opens

Robots ran obstacle courses, climbed through a honeycomb of compartments, tested their vision and soaked themselves in simulated rainstorms. Those were just a few of the demonstrations today at the opening of the most advanced robotics testing facility in the nation, the New England Robotics Validation and Experimentation Center, located at UMass Lowell. 

The NERVE Center, located at 1001 Pawtucket Blvd., Lowell, features a dozen courses that test the strength, durability, design and functionality of robots. The courses use materials like wood, sand, gravel and water to challenge robots’ capabilities to negotiate obstacles and rough terrain like rubble, climb inclines and stairs, maneuver through deep water, withstand rainstorms, handle objects and view images in a variety of circumstances. One of the courses simulates the conditions a robot would face if deployed inside a collapsed building on a search-and-rescue mission.
The center is available to companies regardless of their location for a single use or frequent testing.
“The NERVE Center at UMass Lowell enables companies like iRobot to rigorously test robots, challenge their capabilities in real environments and push the boundaries of innovation,” said Angle, who announced that the Burlington-based company is the first to become a member of the center. “The practical robot industry is here and based on real robots and real work saving lives around the world, on the battlefield and in disaster zones.”
The NERVE Center offers the only robotics-testing facility in the Northeast and one of only three in the United States. Developed in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology, which also oversees the other two test facilities, the NERVE Center’s proximity will cut development and other costs for robotics companies and researchers based in New England. All of the testing will be confidential to protect intellectual property and other proprietary information.
Small unmanned ground vehicle test methods replicated from NIST

  • Continuous/Crossing Pitch and Roll Ramps
  • Underbody Inspection
  • Symmetric Stepfields
  • Multiple staircases at different angles
  • Hurdles and Gaps
  • Sensor Visual Acuity Tests
  • Inclined Plane
  • Ant Farm

Replications of NIST’s Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) manipulator dexterity test methods

  • Open Access Manipulation
  • Horizontal and Vertical Planar Apparatuses
  • Cylindrical Apparatuses
  • Breaking/Boring Wall
  • Polar Grid with Radial and Nodal Apparatuses

Water test areas

  • Fording basin (designed in collaboration with the Army)
  • Splash pools (designed in collaboration with the Army)
  • Indoor rain area

Outdoor surfaces and terrain types

  • Sand
  • Gravel
  • Cobblestone
  • Belgian Block
  • Brick

Indoor floor types

  • Vinyl
  • Tile
  • Carpet

Aspects of the NASA JSC Rock Yard

  • Sand, rocks, hill
“Before the NERVE Center, researchers from companies and universities who wanted to test their robots on the NIST courses needed to travel to Maryland or Texas. The NERVE Center is within an hour’s drive of many of the companies and universities in the regional robotics cluster, which allows robotocists to test their systems more frequently during development, leading to improved systems and faster design cycles,” said Prof. Holly Yanco, NERVE Center director and UMass Lowell computer science faculty member.


Yanco is a respected robotics researcher and educator whose work has been supported by Microsoft, NIST and the National Science Foundation, which presented her with a Career Award in 2005. Other UMass Lowell faculty associated with the NERVE Center and robotics-related research at UMass Lowell include Jill Drury, Yan Luo, Ionnis Raptis, Kate Saenke and Sammy Shina.


“Through the work of talented faculty led by Prof. Yanco, UMass Lowell has established itself as a leader in research in cutting-edge fields like robotics. At the new NERVE Center, companies from across the region, both large and small, will be able to easily access that research expertise and top-of-the-line testing facilities,” said Meehan. “It will provide opportunities for students to get hands-on experience in a field that holds tremendous promise, from creating and sustaining jobs to solving problems and enhancing lives.”


The NERVE Center also supports the education of undergraduate and graduate students at UMass Lowell, including undergrads minoring in robotics, said Yanco. For example, students in Robotics I this semester are building a Mars rover to compete in a NASA robo-ops competition in June and are using an 8-foot by 24-foot sand course in the NERVE Center to test the rover during its development.


The center is managed by Adam Norton, a UMass Lowell alumnus who has been working in robotics research since shortly after graduating from Lowell High School and joining the Artbotics community program Yanco co-developed. As a UMass Lowell student, Norton worked in the university’s Robotics Lab, which Yanco founded to educate students from freshmen to doctoral candidates.


“I graduated from UMass Lowell with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in 2010. Although I did not formally study computer science or engineering, I am working in the field of robotics,” said Norton. “The fine arts program taught me to think analytically and make informed decisions and working in the Robotics Lab gave me a new and exciting area to which I could bring that skill set. As manager of the NERVE Center, I have the opportunity to utilize all that I’ve learned from my education and experiences at UMass Lowell and further contribute to the robotics field.”


Upcoming Lectures at NERVE

Why It Is Hard To Get Robotics Startups Funded
Rodney Brooks, Rethink Robotics

Wednesday, May 29, 2013
Talk at 5:00pm
Reception and dinner to follow

Academics who want to start a robotics company have to adjust to a different set of metrics on what makes a good robot. VCs who are asked to fund robotics companies have a hard time evaluating what is hard and what is easy to achieve in the presented plans. Both groups have difficulty predicting whether the market will be responsive to a radically new solution. This talk lays out the issues and ways to think about all three problems. It is an optimistic look at the future of robotic start ups.

Short Course: Evaluating Human-Robot Interaction
Holly Yanco, UMass Lowell

Wednesday, September 18, 2013
2:00 – 6:00pm
Reception and dinner to follow

In this short course, you will learn methods and metrics for the evaluation of human-robot interaction.  Experimental design and methodologies will be discussed.  Case studies for a variety of robot applications will be presented.  Requirements for human subjects studies approval related to human subjects protection will also be covered.


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