Caltech Has Big UAV Plans for its New Autonomous Systems Research Center

On Tuesday, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) opened up its new Center for Autonomous Systems and Technologies (CAST), which the Pasadena-based school says offers a place for engineers and scientists to advance research on robotics, drones, driverless cars and machine learning.

At the 10,000-square-foot facility, researchers from Caltech’s Division of Engineering and Applied Science, Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) will collaborate to create the next generation of autonomous systems – advancing drone research, autonomous exploration and bio-inspired systems, the institute explains in a press release.

“The goal is to teach autonomous systems to think independently and react accordingly, preparing them for the rigors of the world outside of the lab,” says CAST’s director, Mory Gharib, a Hans W. Liepmann professor of aeronautics and bio-inspired engineering.

According to Caltech, the facility will be a living experiment: While engineers construct and test drones, robots within CAST itself will learn to help run the facility – all while being observed by 46 cameras that provide complete coverage of the interior, tracking each robot’s motion down to within 100 microns (about the thickness of a human hair).

Instead of developing autonomous systems for the sake of advancing the technology, the work will be guided in part by scientists and other stakeholders who would benefit from autonomous systems. For example, by collaborating with seismologists and first responders, engineers could develop a swarm of drones that automatically activate during an earthquake, according to Caltech.

Caltech says the centerpiece of the facility is a three-story-tall, wholly enclosed aerodrome in which to test unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in a variety of wind conditions. The aerodrome includes a 10-foot-by-10-foot wall of 1,296 fans capable of generating wind speeds of up to 44 mph, as well as a side wall of 324 fans to create a crosswind. It can also be tilted 90 degrees to simulate vertical takeoffs and landings.

“The current state-of-the-art in autonomous systems is very promising on two divergent fronts,” Gharib adds. “The bodies, or machines and sensors, have become more and more sophisticated and capable. Meanwhile, the algorithms that collect and interpret behavior are increasingly fine-tuned. We plan to bring these two together through a series of ‘moonshot’ challenges that we will undertake in the coming years.”

According to Caltech, CAST’s moonshot goals include building a robot (guided by a network of flying drone scouts) that can walk from Mexico to Canada without assistance and creating a drone delivery service between Caltech and JPL. Another key goal of CAST is the development of an autonomous flying ambulance for urban applications.

“This isn’t just as simple as creating a UAV big enough to carry a person,” Gharib continues. “You need a fault-tolerant vehicle that can adapt autonomously to shifting weather conditions and navigate through skies without colliding with other UAVs. You need the best in aerospace engineering, machine learning, GPS-free navigation – and all of it scalable. It’s a huge challenge, but at CAST, we can and will build it.”

Caltech notes that corporations and industry members will play a key part in the development of CAST technologies and systems. With the lead sponsorship of Raytheon Co., as well as the support of corporations such as AeroVironment, industry partnerships will help fund CAST and the development of the next generations of autonomous systems.

Photos courtesy of Caltech


  1. Hello,
    That’s a really nice article! Glad to see so much interest in the CAST, which is a beautiful project. However, I would like to add a small clarification: the “wall of fans”, first of his kind has been designed and built by a Swiss Start-up: WindShape. It’s a customized facility based on their product: a module of 3X3 fans that can be assembled as desired.
    If you want any other information, feel free to ask, I would be happy to answer!
    Best regards,
    Albéric Gros


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