TAMU-CC Engineering Department Awarded $752K DOD Grant for Autonomous Systems and Robotics Research

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Imagine a swarm of drones flying above a rocky shoreline in search of survivors from a sailboat accident, or a gaggle of robots on the ground working as a unified team to assess the health of a farmer’s land before planting season — both are important labor- and time-intensive tasks traditionally performed by humans. In these current scenarios, however, the robot teams save humans valuable time and effort that can be used to perform other tasks.

At Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, researchers in the Collaborative Robots and Agents Lab within the Department of Engineering are working to explore the possibilities of utilizing controlled and coordinated robots designed to work as a team. Their work is sponsored by a $752,000 Department of Defense (DOD) grant that will span four years. The project is dubbed “CASER” — short for Coordinated Autonomous Systems for Exploration and Reconnaissance.

CASER Principal Investigator is Dr. Jose Baca, TAMU-CC Assistant Professor of Engineering; Co-PIs are Drs. Miguel Cid Montoya, Thang Nguyen, and Pablo Rangel, all assistant professors in the Department of Engineering.

“Given the ongoing progress and adoption of electric vehicles and autonomous systems, combined with the introduction of the new Master of Science in Engineering program at the Island University, the timing of this grant is opportune,” Baca said. “The support of a federal agency is an indication of the passion and expertise of our team, and it reinforces our conviction in the importance of our work.”

The CASER project is one of 82 DOD grants awarded to Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority-Serving Institutions (HBCU/MSI) in Fiscal Year 2023.

The award is the result of a merit competition administered by the Army Research Office under policy and guidance of the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering (OUSD(R&E)), to increase the capabilities of HBCU/MIs to perform defense research. The Army Research Office is an element of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Army Research Laboratory.

“Our nation’s HBCUs and MSIs are at the forefront of innovation,” said Evelyn Kent, Director of the DoD HBCU/MSI Program and Outreach. “By supporting HBCUs and MSIs, we are cultivating a research enterprise that broadens idea sharing while expanding the pool of reliable science, technology, engineering, and mathematic professionals to meet both our mission and our workforce objectives.”

The CASER project will conduct research in three main areas: distributed control of multirobot systems and multisensory synthesis; models and metrics for multirobot teams; and information processing and fusion.

“Several of these strategies have been implemented in both ground and aerial robots, serving various purposes, such as search-and-rescue scenarios, coastal resilience, transportation, and even for space exploration,” Baca said.  

The team will conduct indoor and outdoor experiments on distributed control of UAS (Unmanned Autonomous Systems) and their autonomy, swarm coordination, and multimodal data collection with 3D light detection and ranging (LIDAR) instruments, thermal cameras, and cameras. The team will also study the use of ground and aerial robots in conducting structural health inspections, building digital twins, which are up-to-date virtual representations of physical assets or products in operation, and will conduct virtual/augmented reality experiments to interact with the UAS, to help validate and refine the proposed techniques.    

Engineering students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels will be part of the CASER project. The team also plans to offer hands-on summer internships to engineering and computer science majors.