Meet the Scientists is an Armed with Science segment highlighting the men and women working in the government realms of science, technology, and research and development: the greatest minds working on the greatest developments of our time. If you know someone who should be featured, email us.
By Yolanda R. Arrington
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
Dr. James Hing, NAWCAD Lakehurst robotics S&T engineer, founded the Robotics Intelligence Systems Engineering (RISE) Laboratory in 2014. The RISE Lab mission is to develop autonomous robotics and intelligent systems solutions for the Aircraft Launch and Recovery Equipment & Support Equipment (ALRE/SE) world. (U.S. Navy photo by Sherry Jacob)
WHO: Dr. James T. Hing joined the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD) Lakehurst in July 2010 as part of the Advanced Technology Projects Branch, Code 126.96.36.199. He is a Robotics S&T Engineer and is responsible for conceiving, coordinating, and applying scientific methods to Science and Technology (S&T) research efforts for the enhancement of Navy and Marine flight deck operations (Support Equipment / Aircraft Launch and Recovery Systems (SE/ALRE)). His work on robotics seeks to provide the warfighter with solutions that optimize workload, increase safety, and increase efficiency.
Prior to joining NAWCAD, Dr. Hing earned his doctorate in Mechanical Engineering from Drexel University in 2010. As a member of the Drexel Autonomous Systems Laboratory, Hing was involved in the development of autonomous air and ground vehicles. His Ph.D. was focused on the development of a mixed reality interface for unmanned aerial vehicle pilot training and evaluation.
In his after work hours, Hing is an Adjunct professor for Drexel University and mentors the Storm Robotics Team from Lenape and Cherokee High Schools in New Jersey.
MISSION: In 2014, Hing founded the Robotics Intelligence Systems Engineering (RISE) Laboratory, which he also manages. The laboratory currently employs six researchers with approximately three rotational interns working on multiple projects that range from basic/applied research to advanced development. Hing is recognized as a leader in the field of robotics at NAWCAD and has authored 19 publications on the subject. His current research interests are in mobile manipulation, swarm robotics, sensor fusion, and verification and validation of autonomous systems.
The RISE Lab mission is to develop autonomous robotics and intelligent systems solutions for the Aircraft Launch and Recovery Equipment & Support Equipment (ALRE/SE) world. Our goals within that world are to increase the efficiency of carrier deck operations, optimization of sailor workload, and to increase the overall safety of the sailor.
Tell us a little about your technology/science.
In the RISE lab, we develop autonomous technologies. An autonomous system in its most basic definition is a computational system that can make decisions based on the information it has received without intervention from an operator. This is different from automation where there are no decisions made by the system and behaviors are scripted. We deal with both autonomy in motion (e.g. robotics) and autonomy at rest (e.g. decision aids). To make intelligent decisions with minimal operator intervention, an autonomous system has to be able to maintain situational awareness of itself, its surroundings, and its mission. This situational awareness is achieved through sensing of the environment with sensors and using algorithms designed to give context to the data being received.
One of the projects we are currently working is to try and apply autonomy to weapons movement on the flight deck called “strike up.” This is a task that takes 2-3 sailors to move a loaded weapon skid, sometimes on the order of 3,000 lbs., all the way from the magazine to the flight deck. By adding motors and sensors to a newly designed weapon skid, we have the ability to give the system some autonomous capabilities. The goal is to eventually enable a single sailor to command many weapon skids rather than having a large number of sailors pulling these skids around on a busy carrier deck.
What do you hope the autonomous system will achieve?
There are many goals of the autonomous systems that we are developing. Probably the most rewarding goal is that some of our systems are being designed to limit the exposure of sailors to high risk scenarios on the aircraft carrier.
The nature of deck operations tasks requires that sailors work in close quarters to aircraft that are landing, taking off, and moving around the deck. This comes at the risk of bodily harm should something go wrong.
By developing technologies that can reduce the number of sailors needing to conduct tasks out on the carrier deck, we can reduce the risk of injury to the fleet. Another benefit of autonomous technologies are that they are great for tasks that are mundane and can free up a sailor to work on more challenging tasks needed to keep the aircraft carrier operating at full capacity. Hopefully one day the technology will lead to a point where full aircraft carrier capabilities could be managed by a small cadre of sailors rather than the thousands that it currently takes.
When do you expect your project to be ready for use?
Most of the technologies we are currently developing in the RISE Lab are at a Technology Readiness Level of 3, which means we have developed a proof of concept. The next step is to mature the technology through the levels until we have a system that can be tested out in the field. If we were developing technologies for a fully autonomous aircraft carrier, I think we could field something within the next three years. However, the challenge that all robotics developers face is that the world is not designed as a fully autonomous environment. All of these robotic systems have to integrate into a world that is filled with both autonomous systems and human driven systems.
In general, the autonomous weapon skids work that is ongoing, I would expect that we are 6 – 10 years from a fully fielded system, especially with the high risk nature of moving ordnance around. However, I believe many of the enabling technologies, such as the machine vision algorithms necessary to gather situational awareness for the autonomous weapon skid, could be integrated into other fielded systems much sooner.
What got you interested in this field of study?
Cartoons like Voltron and Transformers, as well as video games like as Mega Man are what first introduced me to the idea of robots and robotics as a kid. In high school, programming and electronics classes further solidified my interests. I initially started college with the desire to develop robotic prostheses as a mechanical engineer but a course in medical robotics my senior year of college led me to pursue a Ph.D. in that field. Unfortunately, half way through my Ph.D., my advisor decided to leave the university and in order to continue studying robotics at my university, I needed to switch from medical robotics to the field of autonomous vehicles. I have been fascinated with that field ever since the first day in my new laboratory, when I witnessed a driverless ATV navigate around me on its way to a goal.
Are you working on any other projects right now?
One project that I particularly enjoy is in the area of Machine Vision where we are working with a group of engineers from NAVAIR to develop methods to enable unmanned rotorcraft to land on the back of an air capable ship using only information from an onboard camera.
Another fun project I am working on right now is in the area of sensor fusion and perception.
I think one of the most important projects that I just started is on the verification and validation of autonomous systems. An autonomous system by its nature is designed to perform in scenarios that were not planned for a priori. The question of how to verify that an autonomous system will perform as expected when fielded is an important one. Our goal is to utilize known constraints of the aircraft carrier environment to help bound some of the parameters that tend to get unwieldy when trying to verify and validate an autonomous system for operations in a large undetermined environment.
What’s your best advice for budding scientists?
I believe one should always continue to maintain a high situational awareness about the latest advancements in your field by continually reading journals and conference proceedings. The situational awareness will help when determining proposal topics and technology gaps that are prime for investigation.
The second piece of advice I give is to not be discouraged by what I call “lateral progress.” This is when you put a lot of effort into a particular method only to find that it doesn’t work for your application. I believe proving something doesn’t work is just as important to share with the community as is something that does work.
This helps to prevent others from pursuing the same path that you spent so much time on and allows them to focus their time on other methods to progress the field forward.
Our thanks to Dr. James Hing for contributing to this article and for his work in the science and technical communities. We also congratulate him for recently being named the Laboratory Scientist of the Quarter.
RELATED LINK: RISE Laboratory
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