A new partnership led by University of Maryland researchers has entered a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) that could provide up to $68 million to drive advances in artificial intelligence and autonomy. 

An interdisciplinary research team from UMD and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) aims to create a new generation of technologies and devices—from wearables to unmanned aircraft—able to intelligently work alone or in teams with other devices, as well as safely and effectively collaborate with their human operators in different environments.

The five-year agreement brings together a large, diverse group, leveraging the University System of Maryland’s national leadership in engineering, robotics, computer science, operations research, modeling and simulation, and cybersecurity. 

“It’s a very exciting alliance that leverages the university’s decades-long research partnerships with ARL to forge a critical pipeline for research innovation and commercialization in the booming ecosystem of robotics, AI and autonomy,” said Laurie L. Locascio, UMD vice president for research. 

The effort, built on a 25-year partnership between UMD and ARL, encompasses three main research thrusts, each supported by a team of faculty, staff and students: AI, autonomy, and modeling and simulation. Together, the teams seek to develop technologies that reduce human workload and risk in complex environments such as the battlefield and search-and-rescue operations.

“This is a big partnership with an ambitious vision: We want to change the world by quickly getting AI and autonomy into the hands of the people who need it,” said UMD Professor Derek Paley, lead researcher on the agreement and director of the Maryland Robotics Center. “No matter how autonomous we think a system is, a human operator will interface with it at some level. The goal is to migrate the dangerous, dirty and dull work to the autonomous platform.”

The cooperative agreement will open up shared access to unique university and federal assets and facilities. For example, it will grant the UMD and UMBC teams access to ARL’s Robotics Research Collaborative Campus (R2C2), which includes a one-of-a-kind, 200-acre, reconfigurable, multiple-terrain outdoor testing laboratory just north of Baltimore for scalable AI, autonomy and robotics research. 

“In an era of rapidly increasing strategic threats driven in large part by global access to science and technology, talent and resources, the nation that can best operationalize science and do it quickly will have game-changing competitive advantages over their adversaries,” said Karl Kappra, director of ARL’s Futures Division.

Partnering with intelligent systems could facilitate search-and-rescue missions after a catastrophic natural disaster, for example. The great challenge, however, is that the systems are massively complex, and developing, testing and fielding them is time-consuming, costly and error-prone work. The current process involves unsustainable amounts of human labor, custom tool development, machine-specific integration, one-off component acquisition, manual testing and debugging and more, the researchers said.

To overcome these hurdles, the research team will develop shared, standard infrastructure for developing and testing collaborative autonomy, including a “virtual proving ground” that models and simulates existing facilities to enable a wide range of interactions between virtual and real-world actors. 

“Currently, research teams are building their own simulation testbeds to evaluate their own algorithms and systems, which increases cost and delays development of significant innovations,” said UMD Professor Jeffrey Herrmann, co-lead researcher on the agreement. 

As part of another major research thrust, the team will design new approaches to ensuring closer and more trusted human-machine teaming and interaction. This work could bolster technologies such as self-driving vehicles or mobile robots, which combine computer vision and remote sensing, robotics planning and control, and other advanced specialties to navigate complex terrains and unstructured environments.  

“These are very difficult topics that require extensive but diverse expertise,” said UMD Professor Dinesh Manocha, co-lead researcher on the agreement. “A five-year partnership that maximizes the complementary specializations of UMD, UMBC and ARL will give us a window to rethink some of these problems from the ground up and possibly develop next-generation technologies for AI, robotics and autonomy.”

The research team also will draw on the expertise of domain scientists, data scientists and cyberinfrastructure specialists harnessing the explosion of available big data to drive novel discovery. In particular, the team will work on strengthening the decision-making abilities of Army AI technology to meet the demands of today’s national defense.

The UMD principal investigators for this agreement are Paley, the Willis H. Young Jr. Professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Institute for Systems Research; Manocha, Distinguished University Professor and Paul Chrisman Iribe Professor in the Departments of Computer Science and Electrical and Computer Engineering and Institute for Advanced Computer Studies; and Herrmann, in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Institute for Systems Research.

The UMBC principal investigators are Aryya Gangopadhyay, professor and chair of the Department of Information Systems; and Nirmalya Roy, associate professor in the Department of Information Systems.