LASR: behind the curtain of the Navy's robotics laboratory


I don't know all that much about the Naval Research Laboratory when I arrive in DC for "the public's first opportunity to look inside" the space's new $17 million Laboratory for Autonomous Systems Research (LASR). I give the cab driver the address, and he casually tells me that it "stinks," illustrating this notion with a universally familiar hand gesture. He means it literally, too - that you can smell the place, simply driving by in a cab, with the windows up. He says this with such assurance, such gusto, that I fully expect it to smell like the city dump. A wall of stink.

It's not much to go on, but it's something. And while I can thankfully report that his reaction was a bit overstated - at least on this particular day - there's certainly a distinct odor to the place. It's a sprawling 130-acre complex that sits sandwiched between the 295 freeway and the waters of the Potomac River; a series of nearly identical big, white buildings facing inward toward a grassy courtyard. On the way in, a space with what appears to be crushed cars is visible from the freeway.

In the middle of it all is the giant bust of a man, bronzed and balding, looking a bit worse for wear, sitting atop a white stone column reading, simply, "Edison." It's a tribute to the reason this place exists - yet another feather in the man's already over-accomplished cap. The Navy pinpoints the precise moment of conception as a 1915 interview with The New York Times, in which the inventor told the Old Gray Lady that "the government should maintain a great research laboratory." The realization of that vision would come roughly eight years later, with the laboratory using its pre-war resources to pioneer technologies like radar and sonar. The Navy proudly boasts a hefty laundry list of scientific accomplishments that took place behind these gates - the nuclear submarine, the satellite and GPS all reportedly have roots here. That history is proudly displayed on a wall-sized timeline, and, to drive the point home, all of us will be sent off with a copy of the 10-minute documentary, The Naval Research Laboratory: A Timeless Journey.

As we arrive at the tollbooth, one reporter at time, we're greeted by a woman with a clipboard and directed toward what looks to be a repurposed school bus, old and painted white, idling by the curb. According to our Navy-designated tour guide, the organizers were expecting roughly a third of the number of journalists who ultimately responded to its initial solicitation. And, really, who wouldn't want to be one of the first outsiders to step foot in a new military robotics lab, even if it means spending a night in some god awful Best Western just off the freeway in Alexandria, Virginia?


After 20, maybe 30 minutes spent sitting on the bus, we're off, rolling roughly 100 yards before we stop and the doors open once again. All in all, the trip lasts about a minute, prompting chuckles from the invited guests. "I guess the Navy won't be going green this year." Ha, ha, ha. We file out onto the sidewalk, like permission-slip-wielding attendees of a grade school field trip, the uniformed adult supervision keeping close watch so none stray too far from the tour route. And indeed, when I excuse myself to use the restroom, a sailor is assigned to show the way, and stand guard outside the door.

For all of this cloak-and-dagger behavior and the Asimovian name gracing the building's white exterior, the front section of LASR is a decidedly mundane affair, a collection of cubicles, filing cabinets and fluorescent lighting. Our naval chaperones huddle us up and break us into groups, sending us through the doors and into a long, white hall - the entry to the facility we'd braved that grueling one-minute bus ride to see. We file past closed-door laboratories and testing facilities, attempting to glimpses through windows as we're shuffled through.

The first stop on the tour is the Desert High Bay, one of three simulated ecosystems housed under the 50,000-square-foot facility. There's a fourth, the Forest Highland, located behind the facility, though we won't be shown that on our trip, and our tour guide reassures us it's wholly unremarkable, a third of an acre devoted to testing things like autonomous logistic vehicles, a smaller version of facilities set up by the Army and Marines. The High Bays are designed specifically to represent the diverse and oft-unforgiving settings that will someday play host to naval robots.

The Desert High Bay is the smallest of the four spaces. It's also not all that much to look at. Those hoping to stumble into some Willy Wonka-style fantasy world would be sorely disappointed to begin their tour here. It's a fairly standard warehouse room, with off-white walls, gray floors and bright yellow beams running across the ceiling. The centerpiece is a two-foot deep bed of sand measuring 40 feet by 14 feet, butting up against an 18-foot-high rock wall that looks a fair bit like a climbing structure found in an upscale gym. A yellow stepladder leans up against the edge.


For our tour, a teal robotic arm sits bolted to the top of a three-legged workbench, embedded in the sand. A shovel at the end of the arm gingerly fiddles around an area next to a mock IED, peeking out from the sandbank. A number of thick wires connect the setup to an office computer sitting on a worktable. There are buttons that researchers can press from the exterior, to adjust the lighting or activate fans to simulate a desert sandstorm. Beyond that, there's not all that much customization to be done - no punishing desert heat or mischievous roadrunners.

The Littoral High Bay is a bit more impressive in scope than its desert counterpart - though it isn't much to look at itself. It's a big, cavernous, echoey space with a large indoor pool measuring 45 by 25 feet. The Navy has promised that it will muck up the water in the future with things like mud and gravel, to come a bit closer to the real-world marine conditions the space is designed to simulate. The pool comes equipped with a 16-channel wave generator and a sloping mechanism to change the otherwise consistent depth, both of which are removable courtesy of a large crane that hangs above.


For the moment, though, as we congregate around an old Dell Latitude seated on an office chair next to the metal guard rails, the water looks pristine and serene enough to dive into - were it not for that severely limiting 5.5-foot depth. Our guide has taken the laptop out for demo purposes, to show off a video of a prototype unmanned undersea vehicle (UUV) that happens to be seated on an identical rolling office chair just to its right. It's a long, pill-shaped affair with a bright blue and yellow checkerboard shell that makes it look a bit as if it were birthed by the industrial design team at Nerf. There are two long holes on either side of the robot, from which sharp synthetic fins protrude.

Unfortunately, the demo isn't in working order today, so we're forced to crowd around the Latitude to watch the UUV swim laps across the pool in video form.


"We started looking at fish as inspiration, because we see them out in the ocean all the time operating in these kinds of environments," Dr. Jason Geder, one of the lab's engineers, begins, explaining the impetus behind the bot, which could some day see action as a reconnaissance tool in choppy waters not easily navigated with propeller-driven vehicles. "One of the fish that we saw, called the bird wrasse, uses, almost solely, its pectoral fins to maneuver. So that's where we took inspiration for that and then we started using some 3D computational fluid dynamics tools to really model those fins, match it up, make sure the forces were matching what biologists were measuring for the actual fish fin. Then we started to design, doing iterative process using the 3D CFD (computational fluid dynamics) tool along with mechanical engineering designs to build something that would be mechanically feasible, a simpler design, but would still maintain the high thrust, high force that basically the fish were getting."


In another corner of the room sits what appears to be a large blue-green kiddie pool full of sickly, stagnant water, as if it was left out in the yard after some freak tropical storm. It's a sediment tank, hooked up to a variety of sensors that sit on a desk nearby, connected by some heavy-duty looking cables. The Navy is monitoring the material's potential for energy, exploring the possibility of harnessing the dead organic material as a battery, generating electricity to power all manner of marine tools. The sea floor, according to the Navy's scientists, is, essentially, just one giant battery waiting to be utilized.


Our guide warns of adverse effects to our cameras and recording devices before leading us into the last of the three high bays, and sure enough, when the door opens, a wall of heat and humidity escapes from the room like a slap to the face. It's a constant 80-plus degrees at 80 percent humidity, as evidenced by the monitors mounted along a concrete wall - though, admittedly, a bit of both was lost when air leaked out into the sterile hall as the group was led in. The jungle room is easily the most visually impressive of the three simulated environments, designed to mimic a Southeast Asian landscape, complete with a three-tiered forest made from rainforest trees and a man made stream running through its center. Foliage from the canopy is allowed to drift down to the soil below and ultimately serves as fertilizer for the climate-controlled ecosystem. It's the circle of life on some small, closely monitored scale. The LASR employees have also begun introducing regional insects into the mix to help keep its delicate balance - and, should those insects get out of hand, some predatory species to chomp down on them.


The tour guide points to a spot for us to direct our cameras, and indeed, if you position them just right, aiming slightly downward, with the low canopy occupying the upper-frame and ignore, for a moment, the concrete constructed stream, you can grab a shot that looks like it was snapped during a trip to Southeast Asia. As the room's purpose is brought to light, it's clear that the warning we received wasn't without merit. The Jungle High Bay was created - or, perhaps, more appropriately, cultivated - in part to test the effects of rain and humidity on electronics. And indeed, the setup is capable of generating six-plus inches of precipitation in an hour.

Robots are also being designed specifically to traverse this unforgiving terrain. Our guide speaks briefly of the possibility of a serpentine robot that can move across the ground without having to muck up its wheels and an aerial bot that attaches to a tree, extending its wings to suck in energy from the sun. The conversation feels largely hypothetical, however. For the moment, the pristine landscape remains undisturbed by these or any robots, a relative rarity behind LASR's doors.


Certainly this isn't the case with the Prototyping High Bay, a cavernous, garage-like space in which the Navy tests autonomous vehicles of all sizes and shapes. We watch from behind a wall of glass as an aerial drone with up-pointed wings sores around the space, giving some perspective to just how large the room is, flying past checkerboard walls and a series of red and blue sensors that line the top, making up an extensive motion control system capable of tracking up to 50 objects at once, within a tenth of a millimeter. The plane itself has two sonar sensors built in, a design borrowed from nature to help the vehicle avoid trees or buildings without relying on GPS.

Down below is a facade of a room, constructed with movable, light green walls, like the makeshift setting for some high school play. A mostly empty bookcase leans up against one, with two cameras on tripods set up to record the action. Standing out in front of the scene is Lucas, a big, baby-headed robot with a smooth, robotic monotone and eyebrows and eyelids that make him appear perpetually sleepy, an effect that's at once reassuring and creepy. There's a sensor smack dab in the center of Lucas' forehead, the back of his head is left open to let out a flood of wires connected to his body, itself made partly from a Segway.


Lucas is a Mobile, Dexterous, Social (MDS) robot, designed in part as a computational cognitive model, an attempt to mimic some low-level version of human logic, in order to better interact with his fleshy colleagues. Two scientists engage Lucas in conversation, asking him to help fight a hypothetical fire on a ship. His eyes widen, his eyebrows shift and his head tilts slightly to the right into a quizzical position. Ten seconds later, he answers calmly: "There must be a misunderstanding." He explains the situation succinctly, unblinkingly. The fire the second scientist mentioned has actually been contained, but now there's another one to contend with. His mouth moves, roughly in sync with his words, but his head is otherwise stationary. It's all rather eerie.

The scientists are attempting to instill the mayor of the uncanny valley with theory of mind - the knowledge that other beings (in this case humans) have different thought processes. In other words, try as the military might to knock it out of them, sailors on ships plagued by fires don't think like machines. Lucas is also equipped with infrared cameras and sensors, which all help him to triangulate a fire.

This particular model is also packing a fire extinguisher (that's where the "dexterous" in the MDS acronym comes in), and when a (controlled) fire breaks out in the little green room Lucas hops into action. Well, not "hops" so much as "assesses the situation," eventually extinguishing the fire. It is a rather lengthy process, despite the extremely close proximity of the blaze. It's a bit frustrating watching the circuits in his head work through reasoning exercises as the nearby fire reflects on his shiny skull. As impressive as Lucas' reasoning skills may be, he's not exactly ready to step into the role of fire warden on any naval ships at the moment.


Of course, there's an important reminder in all of this. The "L" in LASR is for laboratory (there aren't, as one reporter made a point to clarify, any actual lasers to speak of) and as such, these are not quite battle-ready robots we're dealing with here. At present, Lucas certainly isn't the most efficient way to extinguish a fire, but that's not really the point. He's got bigger fish to fry, like wrapping his terrifying infant skull around concepts of human reasoning, a big baby-headed attempt to think like a person so that he might someday work alongside them.

It's easy, too, as you're shuttled through the halls, to forget the ultimate purpose of all this research. It's a fact we're gently reminded of at the close, as Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder fields a question from a military media representative regarding how the facility will ultimately benefit the armed forces. "Everything we do here, is not only just for the betterment of science, technology and the nation as a whole, but we have a connective tissue to those technologies - to war-fighting capabilities."

With just our tour stops as context, it's easy to imagine the US as a peace-keeping nation. But, as we're crowded around Lucas and his human friends, one reporter asks, off-handedly, whether the fire extinguisher in his dexterous hands could potentially be swapped out for a firearm. It's suddenly much easier to view those tired robot eyes in a more sinister context. Sending autonomous bots into battle would certainly have its benefits. Of course, that's purely a hypothetical scenario, one that doesn't quite fit the picture that we've seen of the $17 million facility, seated on the shores of the Potomac. And certainly for as long as mankind is at war, there will be plenty of fires to put out. The driving force behind LASR seems to be the never-ending search for a better way to do so.

[Image credit: U.S Naval Research Laboratory]