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Conversations with AUVSI: Pratt Miller Mobility

Pratt Miller Mobility is an engineering and product development company that serves the spectrum of the mobility industry, from the world’s largest automotive OEM’s to budding start-ups, commercial truck to powersports – to bring their vision into reality. With roots in motorsports, the company is properly equipped to deliver what it describes as “ingenious solutions” to its clients' most challenging problems and wildest ideas. In the third edition of “Conversations with AUVSI,” Christopher Andrews, director of Mobility & Innovation at Pratt Miller Mobility, took the time to answer some questions about Pratt Miller Mobility’s background, its Large Area Autonomous Disinfecting (LAAD) vehicle, and how the LAAD vehicle performed during a week-long demonstration in July at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This interview was conducted in mid-August. Can you start off by providing some background information about Pratt Miller Mobility and the work that you all do? Pratt Miller is a leading engineering and product development company. Our winning roots in motorsports enable us to deliver ingenious solutions to our clients' most challenging problems and wildest ideas. That history enables our team of highly adaptive innovators to apply speed, agility and engineering expertise to every project. PME swiftly transforms what's possible in our clients' industries by taking what they do to the next level and changing their world for the better. Our Mobility team has a long and proud history working alongside the world’s leading automotive, commercial truck, powersports and new mobility OEM’s. With our existing portfolio and sense of mission, Pratt Miller is the preferred Research and Innovation partner and niche-production supplier to the most innovative mobility companies in the world. What is the backstory behind your Large Area Autonomous Disinfecting (LAAD) vehicle? Was the vehicle developed specifically to address the COVID-19 pandemic, or did you convert another vehicle and adapt it to have disinfectant capabilities? Our team has extensive experience in electrification, controls and robotics/autonomy, including our flexible robotics platforms that we are currently providing to the defense industry. Late last year, we started on the path to investigate niche market solutions that could be solved from this history and expertise. With the COVID-19 pandemic having such a drastic impact on the world, we were able to work with partners in the disinfecting industry to develop this unique solution of LAAD-V and spin up a solution very quickly. At our core, our team has the heart of a race team and the ability to adapt to change very rapidly, along with providing initial prototypes with high quality and quickly. What are some characteristics that make the LAAD vehicle really unique? The unique aspects of the LAAD-V are that it can utilize a multi-head electrostatic sprayer array to cover a large area with high quality coverage. It provides documentation and reporting through the automation and connected systems. It reports exactly what areas were covered and if there were any areas that were not able to be disinfected due to any unique constraints, i.e., did someone leave a mop in an isle that prevented the LAAD-V from going down an isle? The LAAD-V also has the ability to carry 7 gallons of disinfecting material, allowing for a very long run time between refills. In collaboration with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) and PlanetM, you all demonstrated the LAAD vehicle at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, Michigan in July; what did the process look like to land this demonstration? We are very thankful and always happy to work with MEDC and Plant M. We were in contact early, when they redirected some funding form current projects to this COVID-19 solutions funding. We were able to work with them both to go through multiple target pilot locations before landing on the innovative team at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids Michigan (GRR). This team was very excited to be a leader in protecting their travelers and they were able to move very quickly also to scope and approve the project. There were multiple calls/tele-meetings and a visit to Grand Rapids that allowed us to get the project scoped. The MEDC and Plant M then approved this along with their other projects within a week. The entire project was only 2 weeks long. It is amazing how quickly we were all able to bring this together. How did the demonstration go? The demonstration and pilot came off very well in Grand Rapids. The GRR board, leadership, and working team were on site, as well as the Planet M team and our Pratt Miller Mobility team for the media day. The LAAD-V proved itself and its design intent features by successfully disinfecting the airport, and also providing critical information on the business case value for the unit and value to large area facility leaders. What kind of feedback did you all receive during and following the demonstration? Was there any feedback that you all received that will lead to adjustments or improvements of the vehicle? We did receive excellent feedback, from ways to improve our mapping and programing for large areas and seating layout best practices working with the GRR team, to improved nozzle designs, wet out times for disinfecting materials, and overall how to provide value and efficiency improvements for the airport staffing. What’s next for Pratt Miller Mobility and the LAAD vehicle? We are in discussions with many of North America’s largest cleaning and disinfecting companies, as well as high profile large area facilities in working toward additional disinfecting deployments. We are looking forward to a very busy year and into next year for this technology, as we believe this new level of disinfecting becomes the new standard in the future that allows our society to have confidence in their daily lives for years to come.

L3 ASV delivers long-endurance autonomous vessel to Royal Navy

L3 ASV has delivered a long-endurance autonomous vessel known as the C-Enduro to the Royal Navy. According to L3 ASV, the vessel will be used for military data gathering trials by the Mine countermeasures and Hydrographic Capability (MHC) program, as the Navy looks to utilize autonomous technology. “We are proud to support the Royal Navy in their plans to explore the uses of marine autonomy as they continue to invest in new and exciting technology,” says Vince Dobbin, sales and marketing director for L3 ASV. “This vessel is an evolution of our existing C-Enduro product range and provides the unique capability to collect a variety of data during any one mission over extended periods.” Equipped with 10 sensors that combine scientific and hydrographic survey equipment, the C-Enduro autonomous vessel operates using ASView, which is L3 ASV’s proprietary control system that enables a wide variety of autonomous control modes, including line following, station-keeping and geofencing. Additionally, the vessel is fitted with L3 ASV’s advanced autonomy package, which helps ensure situational awareness and smart path planning. “The different ways in which the C-Enduro can be operated will allow the Navy to test and develop the ability of an autonomous Unmanned Surface Vessel (USV) to effectively gather important hydrographic data and potentially form part of a future capability to be delivered by the MHC program,” comments Alex du Pre, MHC team lead at Defence Equipment and Support. For L3 ASV, this project is the fourth delivery of a C-Enduro vessel. The company says that previous successful missions include an 11-day over-the-horizon marine science mission north of Scotland for the National Oceanography Centre.

FirstGroup to work on shared autonomous vehicle research at automated vehicle proving ground in California

A transport operator called FirstGroup will conduct research on shared autonomous vehicles at the Concord, California-based GoMentum Station, after signing an agreement with the federally designated automated vehicle proving ground. Through the partnership, First Transit, which is a United States division of the United Kingdom-headquartered FirstGroup, will use the 2,000-hectare test facility as a test site for “innovative transport applications.” One of the applications that First Transit will use the test facility for is a pilot project that began back in 2016, which seeks to deploy the “first commercially operated shared autonomous vehicle on public roads in the United States.” “The partnership with GoMentum Station allows us to identify new mobility solutions for our customers using shared autonomous vehicle technology,” says Brad Thomas, president of First Transit. “We see the broad application of this technology as a great first and last mile solution plus countless other transportation challenges.” Currently, GoMentum Station is being used by the Contra Costa Transportation Authority (CCTA) and its partners, as they work to accelerate the next generation of transportation technologies. Randell Iwasaki, Executive Director of CCTA, says, “the partnership with First Transit expands the international reach of GoMentum Station, and will provide a unique opportunity for multi-modal testing with a firm that specializes in transit operations.”  Iwasaki adds, "this will enable us to explore how automated vehicles can complement and enhance existing mobility options.”

LG Electronics developing autonomous robot to disinfect high-touch, high-traffic areas

LG Electronics has announced that it is developing an autonomous robot that will use ultraviolet (UV-C) light to disinfect high-touch, high-traffic areas. The robot will be officially unveiled at Digital CES 2021 in January. LG Business Solutions USA plans to offer the UV robot to U.S. hospitality, education, corporate, retail, restaurant, and transportation customers in early 2021. “We hope LG's first UV disseminating robot will give our customers, and in turn their customers, peace of mind,” says Michael Kosla, vice president, LG Business Solutions USA. “Whether it's hotel guests, students in classrooms or patrons of restaurants and other businesses, they can rest assured that the LG autonomous UV robot will help reduce their exposure to harmful bacteria and germs.” By helping to disinfect high-touch, high-traffic areas, the robot will enable a “new standard of hygiene,” LG says. Its autonomous design will allow the robot to move easily around tables, chairs and other furniture. It will take just 15 to 30 minutes to irradiate a room’s touchable surfaces, disinfecting multiple areas on a single battery charge. The robot is engineered to be easy to operate. It can be integrated into established cleaning routines without requiring extensive staff training or specialists to operate it. Using remote updates to smartphones or tablets, staff will be able to monitor the robot's progress. Employee exposure to UV rays will be minimized through a built-in safety lock activated by human motion detection sensors, pressing of an emergency stop button or via the mobile application.  “A higher level of disinfection is going to become the new customer expectation in the new contactless economy where we now all live, work, learn and play,” Kosla says.  “LG is bringing to bear its expertise in robotics, artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles for creative solutions like this to meet specific customer requirements.” LG says that the robot is the first in a series of new LG CLOi autonomous robots planned for introduction in the U.S. during 2021.

Valqari introduces Smart Drone Delivery Mailbox

A Chicago-based start-up called Valqari says that its patented Smart Drone Delivery Mailbox solves the last inch logistic problems associated with drone delivery. Described as a “universal drone receptacle for package delivery and pick-up,” the smart mailbox is equipped with agnostic capabilities to ensure seamless integration and communication with any UAS manufacturer during a fully-automated delivery process. Valqari says that with its smart mailbox, it can “revolutionize drone deliveries” for a variety of industries, including pharmaceuticals, meal delivery and grocery services, governments and residential e-commerce. “We knew the biggest hurdle facing drone delivery was that there was no standardized, safe and secure landing area,” says Valqari’s CEO and co-founder Ryan Walsh. “This gave us a clear vision from the start that our mission would be to provide the missing piece to the last stage drone delivery process.” ​Walsh and fellow Valqari co-founder Alexander Falesch realized back in 2013 that UAS deliveries were going to be a reality sooner than later, so they spent several years conducting research and tests until they created a secure and practical answer for the final few inches of delivery. The Smart Drone Mailbox concept became a reality in 2017, the same year that Valqari was officially founded. With Valqari’s smart mailbox, drone delivery providers have a safe landing area that uses two-way communication technology to eliminate risks related with total automated drone delivery, providing prospective partners with a “complete end-to-end delivery solution,” while offering future users reduced shipping costs, increased market penetration, reduced liabilities and a secure chain of custody. To date, Valqari says that its drone delivery platform is the only one to be issued utility patents in 13 countries and territories including the United States, the United Kingdom, and China. Valqari will be at Booth 721 during Xponential 2019 in Chicago.

U.S. Navy selects RE2 Robotics to develop an autonomous robotic cargo handling system

Being that personnel are still responsible for manually loading and unloading cargo from an air vehicle for cargo missions today, the U.S. Navy has tasked RE2 Robotics with developing an Autonomous Robotic Cargo Handling (ARCH) system. This system will be demonstrated in concurrence with the Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System (AACUS) equipped UH-1H Optionally Piloted Aircraft (OPA), which will provide the ability to deliver supplies autonomously. “Manual handling of cargo increases time the aircraft is on the ground in the Landing Zone and increases exposure of personnel to dangerous situations,” says Jorgen Pedersen, president and CEO of RE2 Robotics.  “Autonomous load and unload capability would greatly reduce burden on Marine Corps troops who typically move cargo out of the supplying aircraft.” The ARCH system will be developed under the Department of Defense’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. The contract total for Phase I SBIR is $125,000. RE2 Robotics will spend the first phase of the SBIR defining and developing a concept for the ARCH system. Speed of loading/unloading, load capacity, and power requirements are a few of the important performance parameters that will be focused on during the development of the system. RE2 Robotics will also take into account modularity and interoperability for the ARCH design. RE2 will develop an initial conceptual design of the system using the company’s expertise in robotic manipulation and modular systems.

Sea Machines demonstrates how autonomous tech can increase safety of marine oil-spill response ops

Sea Machines Robotics has announced that as part of its cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Transportation Maritime Administration (MARAD), it successfully demonstrated its autonomous systems for use onboard a Kvichak Marco skimmer boat during events held along the Portland harbor on Aug. 21. A Vigor/Kvichak Marine Industries-built skimmer boat was utilized during the on-water demonstrations. According to Sea Machines, the boat, which is owned by Marine Spill Response Corp. (MSRC), is the world’s first autonomous spill response vessel. “Our operation of the world’s first autonomous, remote-commanded spill-response vessel is yet another significant industry first for Sea Machines,” says Michael G. Johnson, founder and CEO, Sea Machines. “But even more important is the fact that we’ve proven that our technology can be applied to the marine spill response industry – as well as other marine sectors – to protect the health and lives of mariners responding to spills. We are proud to support MSRC’s mission of response preparedness and to work alongside MARAD for these important demonstrations.” A Sea Machines operator commanded the skimmer boat—equipped with Sea Machines' SM300 autonomous-command system—from a shoreside location at Portland Yacht Services. The boat performed several operations including remote autonomous control from an onshore location or secondary vessel, autonomous waypoint tracking, and collaborative autonomy for multi-vessel operations. Sea Machines says that it is also discussed how to operate the skimmer in an unmanned autonomous mode, which would allow operators to respond to spill events 24 hours a day, seven days a week depending on recovery conditions, even when crews are not available or restricted. These configurations reduce, or eliminate, exposure of crewmembers to toxic fumes and other safety hazards. “This is the future of the maritime industry. It’s safer, it’s faster, it’s more cost-effective,” says Richard Balzano, deputy administrator. “This technology is here and it will make you a believer. We are here because we want to help the maritime industry evolve. It’s about safety, the environment and reducing risk on the water.”

Exyn Technologies and Velodyne LiDAR partner to develop fully autonomous indoor UAS

Exyn Technologies has announced that Velodyne LiDAR’s VLP-16 Puck LITE LiDAR sensors are now integrated into Exyn Technologies’ Advanced Autonomous Aerial Robots (A3R). The primary sensor for simultaneous localization and mapping, the Velodyne VLP-16 is also part of the sense-and-avoid capabilities and state estimation. “Using Velodyne’s VLP-16, Exyn’s A3Rs do not need GPS, beacons or markers,” explains Nader Elm, chief executive officer of Exyn Technologies. “This technology is being developed to ease logistical bottlenecks in warehouses, as well as to go into other indoor and GPS-limited environments such as commercial construction sites and first-responder situations. We operate in a full 3D volumetric space and can dynamically plan flight paths in complex, dynamic and cluttered environments.” A combination of leading AI software and A3R hardware developed by Exyn, the A3Rs will be used to autonomously scan and map inventory while flying in large warehouses and distribution centers, which will help increase frequency and accuracy of cycle counts, reduce time taken, and decrease risk for workers. Exyn Technologies’ UAS have a number of capabilities. They can scan in all fields of view, read barcodes and RFID beacons, and judge location and numbers of stock. The UAS can also note worker positions and react accordingly in real-time. “We are very excited to partner with Exyn Technologies,” says Frank Bertini, UAV and Robotics business manager at Velodyne LiDAR. “It proves the business case for 3D LiDAR beyond just autonomous cars. The demand for real-time inventory management within warehouses and fulfilment centers has created a need for autonomous platforms which are both efficient and safe.” Powered by the exynAI autonomy core, the A3R “intelligently fuses” multiple sensing modalities including LiDAR, IMU, and cameras to enable “robust perception and navigation in real-world conditions.” Recently, Exyn Technologies was invited to fly its A3R robots in the Milestones of Flight Hall during the Smithsonian Ingenuity Festival. This was reportedly the first time that anything had actually flown inside the institution that celebrates flight.

Northrop Grumman brings DA/RC view to the modern battlefield

Northrop Grumman makes plenty of intelligent systems, including unmanned ones, and so do many other defense contractors.   The company would like to allow them to all work together, seamlessly, while requiring relatively little human oversight: what it calls Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2), and its subset, Distributed Autonomous Responsive Control, or DA/RC.   "It is essentially a battle manager on steroids," says Scott Winship, the senior vice president for advanced programs at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. "These are all command nodes that exist, and communication nodes that exist ... so we could use what we have and link them this way."   On huge video screens at the company's Center for Innovative Solutions in McLean, Virginia, Winship and Bryan Lima, JADC2 business lead, walked reporters through a DA/RC scenario. Simulated manned and unmanned aircraft flew over a contested area — in this case, California — and conducted various missions on the fly.   The aircraft could communicate to each other and home base, in this case an aircraft carrier. Once a mission was established — say, to monitor a certain door on a certain building — the systems would "bid" to carry it out. An aircraft that was too far away and too low on fuel probably wouldn't get the job.   If an aircraft was on the way to evaluate a target and happened to come across a radar site, it could alert HQ and other aerial systems to decide what to do about it.   DA/RC answers the question, "I want to hold an area at risk perpetually. How do I do that?" Winship asked. Long-term effort   The work started 15 years ago as part of the UCAS (Unmanned Combat Air System), a program to fly large drones off of aircraft carriers. That posed a problem, Lima said, as carriers don't have the space to hold a conventional air crew flying drones to cover a large area over a long period of time.   Over the last five years, Winship says, Northrop Grumman has been "treating airplanes not as airplanes but as data nodes ... it is basically a measure of autonomy that you're pushing up to an airplane."   The number of aircraft or other systems that can be used by DA/RC is intended to be unlimited. The company has done simulation with up to 100 systems involved, and in real-world testing has used 10. They aren't all aircraft, either — as part of ANTX demonstrations in 2016 and 2018, the system included unmanned underwater vehicles.   "The number of these [aircraft or vehicles] doesn't really matter," Winship said. "The types of these doesn't really matter."   Almost anything can be used in the system, Winship says, as long as they can talk to each other and give and receive tasking.    The company doesn't plan on selling the software to the military for, say, the Air Force's Advanced Battle Management System, an idea for a very similar type of functionality.   Instead, DA/RC and the broader JADC2 "enables the kind of systems that we sell," Winship said. Below: A look at a JADC2 command room. Photo: Northrop Grumman