U to get defense money from gov’t

Charley Bruce

Robots with video cameras, jumping capabilities and grappling hooks reeled in millions of dollars for the University in the recently passed federal defense bill.

The 2007 defense appropriations bill would, in part, give money to three University research centers involving robotics, hypersonic aircraft and high-performance computers.

The president has not yet signed the bill, which funds Department of Defense activities.

The House passed the bill with 394 supporting votes Sept. 26. The Senate passed the bill 100-0 later that week.

The bill comes out to $1,375.81 per American, according to Washington Watch, a group that calculates costs for bills to the American citizen.

Battlefield robotics

Democratic U.S. Rep. Martin Sabo earmarked $1.95 million for further research to advance robotics technology and investigate civilian applications at the University.

The COTS-M (Commercial Off the Shelf-Military) scout robot is a small cylindrical device the size of a water bottle with wheels on both ends. It weighs less than a pound.

A camera inside transmits images to show what’s happening in dangerous environments: fires, battles or collapsed buildings.

The University’s Center for Distributed Robotics created the robots, the first version of which came out in March 1999.

Since 2002, students have developed the new generation.

Nikolaos Papanikolopoulos, the center’s director, directed the team that developed the first scout robot in 1999.

This is the first time the center has received funding through the federal defense bill.

Papanikolopoulos said the money will develop infrared cameras and place microphones in the device.

He’s also interested in developing the ability to control a fleet of the machines.

The government uses the scouts overseas, but he said he doesn’t know exactly how many or for what purposes.

He hypothesized the machines are being used to find improvised explosive devices.

“This way no one dies or loses a limb, they only lose about a few thousand (dollars),” he said.

The current cost is $6,000 to $7,000 each, but mass production would drive the price down to $1,000 or less per scout robot, Papanikolopoulos said.

Computer science doctoral student Andrew Drenner has worked on the project since 2001.

Some older generation scouts were equipped with a jumping mechanism, but it would break sometimes, Drenner said.

The new scouts are built to be stronger, Drenner said. The outer shell is made of titanium, the innards of aluminum and the wheels of hardened rubber.

“You could throw them off the Washington Avenue (parking) ramp and it’d be fine,” he said.

The researchers also are lowering costs by using as many commercially available parts as possible, Drenner said.

The remote control has a joystick-like switch to maneuver the robot – the same part number as a PlayStation toggle switch, he said.

“The primary focus of the lab is to create robots that can save lives,” Drenner said.

Hypersonic research

The act also allocates $2 million to the Hypersonic Research Center for the study of high-speed aircraft. Sabo has secured $8 million for the program since 2004.

Professor Graham Candler said his research develops simulation procedures for the military and NASA to test aircraft designs.

Candler said there is no way to re-create hypersonic conditions in a lab, and most work is done with mathematical computer models.

He said part of his research is determining what happens when gas particles hit the surface of the space shuttle at 25,000 mph during re-entry.

When the particles hit the spacecraft, they slow down and create intense heat of about 20,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

This changes the chemical makeup of the particles around the aircraft, Candler said.

NASA has utilized some of the codes developed from his team’s research models, he said.

The newest funds will go to graduate student researchers and some computing.

The money will also be used to work with experimental facilities the University doesn’t have, he said.

Candler said the best test lab in the country is in Buffalo, N.Y. The team will design and test an experiment there. It then will discuss problems and adjust conditions.

“If you just go off and do computations on the computer no one is going to believe them,” he said. “There’s nothing to anchor them to reality.”

More specific experiments make simulations more precise, he said.

“We’re really the best place to do research in this area,” Candler said.

High-performance computing

The University joined the Army High Performance Computing Research Center program in 1989 and has since received $206 million.

This year, $9.75 million will buy high-performance computer equipment, and an additional $9.75 million will go to scientists, research support staff, technological exchange and summer programs for students.

“They do high-end computer modeling for the Army,” Sabo said.

Funding criteria

Sabo said he usually decides to back a program if the proposal makes sense, has merit and serves a useful purpose.

“There’s no magic formula,” he said.

Sabo said many spin-offs from government-funded University research will help Minnesota.

Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, said his organization is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that tries to uncover, expose and eliminate government fraud, abuse and mismanagement.

He said that although he hasn’t examined the bill in depth, he saw some questionable expenditures, such as two programs he didn’t think had military applications.

“The one thing in Washington that is bipartisan is pork-barrel spending,” he said.