On the map

Reno's quest to become a global research hub

Richard Kelley is the chief engineer of UNR’s Nevada Advanced Autonomous Systems Innovation Center (NAASIC).

Richard Kelley is the chief engineer of UNR’s Nevada Advanced Autonomous Systems Innovation Center (NAASIC).


For more information, visit www.unr.edu/vpri.

It’s not uncommon these days to see Reno linked to high-profile projects. Last year’s Tesla announcement about the development of its $5 billion Gigafactory made waves throughout the global technology industry, and subsequent developments—like Apple’s expanding data center—solidified Northern Nevada’s new reputation as an up-and-coming region for innovation.

And now Reno’s newest high-profile connection is to NASA, as the University of Nevada, Reno begins a long-term research project on unmanned aerial systems. Although it’s not the university’s first collaboration with NASA, it’s one of the largest ever conducted, and it’s expected to put UNR (and subsequently, Reno) on the map for groundbreaking technological research.

But these developments have only been made possible by a communal shift toward embracing technology and research. There’d be no draw for companies like Tesla and Apple if a burgeoning research community didn’t already exist—and it does, and it has for a while now, although until recently, it’s been isolated to the university.

UNR is considered a top tier research institution by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, which means that it has a major research focus and provides opportunities for faculty to receive research funding and opportunities. This reputation extends to all departments at the university; however, the university’s current emphasis is on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). This has opened a lot of doors for UNR to be on the forefront of technology research, particularly that of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, also referred to as drones) where it has found a successful niche, according to Richard Kelly, chief engineer of UNR’s Nevada Advanced Autonomous Systems Innovation Center (NAASIC).

Kelley is a computer scientist who, in conjunction with faculty and students at the university, is conducting research with NASA about unmanned aerial systems.

“The unmanned aircraft program has been around for a while, but has really started to take off,” Kelley says, acknowledging the flight pun. Nevada is now a hotspot for autonomous aircraft research, a trend that began last year when Nevada was selected to be a test site by the Federal Aviation Administration. This designation gave Nevada the green light to test out drones for commercial purposes. This announcement had mixed responses by the greater community who question the purpose and ethics of drones (“What drones may come,” RN&R, April 4, 2014) but ultimately, the current goal is to focus on research and the potentially life-saving applications of UAVs. That, at least, is NASA’s ambition for their new project with UNR, in which drone safety is being put to the test for eventual applications in agriculture, infrastructure and emergency management.

NASA is a big get for the university, and Kelley says the collaboration is “totally awesome.” It’s not just faculty who get to participate in the project, but students, too.

But it’s also due to good timing; after several years of living in a rough local economy, Renoites started to focus on entrepreneurship, and using science and tech as a way to create a self-sustaining, job-creating economy. But this all starts with research and development.

Kelley attributes the increased attention on research to several factors: a combination of government support, community goals and technological developments.

“It’s been a long time in the making,” he says. “The robotics lab [at UNR] has been around since 2003, and it’s been doing interesting stuff. The state government—Governor Sandoval has pushed technology very hard, and I think that’s helped. That’s been one key part. The university has really—I don’t want to say, has shifted focus—but has put a lot of emphasis on engineering and technology and innovation. I think that a lot of individuals at the university who have come on in the past couple of years have been very focused on: how do you create an environment where innovation can really flourish?”

Innovation, in this context, is about coming up with new scientific ideas with global applications, testing these ideas, and bringing them to market.

But despite the facilitated and calculated push for innovation, strong ideas tend to happen organically. Kelley cites local organizations, like the Reno Collective and local makerspaces, as playing a key role in getting the public on board and empowering people to think and tinker. This mentality was heightened by news about Tesla coming to Reno, but that was made possible, in part, by community support and the demonstration that Reno does have a passionate, unique and homegrown technology culture.

“A lot of it is grassroots,” says Kelley. “You just get a lot of interesting people in a small space to talk and things happen. And that just feeds on itself, and it grows. And then you have one or two things like Tesla coming to town and that starts to make people pay attention, so some of it I think is that it has grown, some of it has been supported by state and local government, and some of it has been there all along.”

Taking flight

Even the most scientifically minded researchers acknowledge that sometimes, collaborations are kismet. The NASA collaboration began last September in this way—it started by a chance meeting at the Reno Air Races, where NASA’s Ames research center (based in Mountain View) had a table. UNR engineers chatted with NASA scientists about an unmanned systems traffic management idea, and a partnership was born.

“We talked with them for a while and started the dialog,” says Kelley. “And from there it turned into a Space Act Agreement between NASA and the university, and we actually had to go through a series of steps to participate in the first build,” which is what happened a few weeks ago at NASA’s Crows Landing Airport in California.

This involved testing UAV software, developed by Kelley and his team, and hardware, developed by Flirtey, a UAV startup. Flirtey is an Australian company now based out of UNR. Together, the software and hardware are used to help drones navigate more safely around each other.

This initial test went “very well,” according to Kelley, which helps strengthen NASA’s five year, multimillion dollar partnership.

“The basic problem NASA is trying to solve is, how do you get a lot of drones in the air at once without having them run into each other, or buildings?” Kelley says.

UNR is one of several national groups developing and testing this technology, but it’s currently the lead on the project. This first test was to evaluate the safety and functionality of the UAVs. This is the most vital part of nearly all UAV research—because many of the applications of UAVs require navigating through populated areas, researchers must tackle this problem first.

“The plan was to validate the system and focus on the science,” says Kelley. “All of the systems involved performed the way they were supposed to. … The question is, how do you get a bunch [of UAVs] up at once without crashing into each other? This can mean, how do you reserve the airspace? The U.S. has the busiest airspace in the world. It could also mean, how do you go from point A to point B, or from C to D, and across, and to be able to route around each other. The drones should be smart enough to do that.”

This test couldn’t be done until the university found a company to partner with for the hardware. Flirtey is focused on creating drone concepts, which Kelley deems “outstanding,” with the end goal of using them for delivery services. Kelley acknowledges the skepticism about drone delivery, but says that the idea is new to people and will undergo rigorous experimentation.

Delivery drones are just one application of the UAV research. Another avenue for drones is agriculture and environmental surveying. Drones as an agriculture tool has given UNR another remote collaboration with researchers in Idaho, who are using UAVs to track the hydration of potato fields. By using drones, they can pinpoint leaks in the irrigation system. The technology can also be used locally to assist with drought management, farming and conservation.

Another prominent use for UAVs is inspecting infrastructure. Kelley says they’re in talks with Nevada Department of Transportation to use UAVs as inspection tools for buildings and concrete. Drones as emergency management tools are also in development worldwide; they can be used to investigate unsafe structures, search for injured persons, or evaluate additional environmental threats, without having to send real emergency responders in until it’s safe to do so.

The Innevation Center is located on 450 Sinclair St. It’s not yet open to the public but will offer public memberships later this year.

Photo/Ashley Hennefer

To make these uses possible, researchers still have to figure out how to increase a drone’s line of sight. Currently, UAVs are typically only functional if the pilot can see the aircraft. For the devices to function autonomously, the line of sight needs to be increased so pilots can navigate the drones remotely. This is the next phase of NASA and UNR’s research.

The research has drawn new faculty from around the world, including world-renown researchers such as Kostas Alexis. Prior to his new position at UNR, Alexis was a senior researcher at the Autonomous Systems Lab at Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. (This school is perhaps better known as ETH Zurich; Albert Einstein is a notable alum.) Alexis was a lead member on the AtlantikSolar project, in which a solar-powered UAV completed an 81-hour endurance flight, setting a world record.

Bringing new faculty has given UNR a more global perspective on research. While some researchers have been specifically drafted to the university for their expertise, Kelley says many have come on board because of UNR’s reputation.

The next mission is to bring in members of the community who aren’t academics. Not only does this create a more educated populace, but it brings new ideas to the table that experienced researchers may have not considered.

“It’s a great change,” says Kelley. “Typically, in the past—and this happens at universities everywhere—people get into their silos and they focus on their one really hard problem for a long time, and then they move on.”

The need for interdisciplinary collaboration is key to research being successful.

“Just the nature of unmanned aerial technology is such that you really have to have people who come from a lot of different areas,” he says. This philosophy is supported by movements like STEAM, which seeks to add “art” to STEM and encourage creative thinking in the sciences. The humanities also play a role, as social science research delves into the ethics of personal privacy in the digital era.

But local researchers and economic developers want interdisciplinary ambitions to expand beyond the confines of academia.

The center can hold

The culmination of this goal is the university’s new downtown Innevation Center on 450 Sinclair St. The 25,000-square-foot facility houses organizations like NAASIC, Nevada Industry Excellence (NVIE) and Nevada Center for Applied Research (NCAR), among other businesses that will be moving in. There’s a makerspace and collaborative workspaces. The purpose is to bridge the gap between the community and the university by having a more central location for the public.

The misspelling of the Center name is intentional; it’s a play on “Nev”ada. Las Vegas is home to another 65,000-square-foot Innevation Center. Both facilities are funded partially by data company Switch, whose upcoming SuperNAP data center at the Tahoe Reno Industrial Campus will be the largest in the world.

The Innevation Center’s official opening was on Sept. 22, but it won’t be open for public use until later this year. Community memberships will be available for $150 per month—this gives the member access to the physical resources within the building (such as computers, software and 3D printers, among other tools) and to the human resources, too, such as mentors and university faculty.

The idea for the Innevation Center became a reality in 2013, when the building was acquired by the university, according to Mridul Gautam, UNR’s vice president for Research and Innovation. Gautam came to the university in 2013 from West Virginia University, and he’s also a professor of mechanical engineering. Gautam was given the reins to the center soon after his arrival.

“The current vision—my vision—has always been promoting entrepreneurship and innovation,” he says. “It’s intended to create an ecosystem. What is an ecosystem? It’s people talking with each other, working with other people in the makerspace. It’s where everyone is engaged, everyone is pulling the wagon in the same direction.”

Gautam says that people with “something they want to build, something they want to market” will be able to work directly with mentors, who are business owners and members of local organizations such as the Economic Development Authority of Nevada (EDAWN).

Gautam isn’t the only one using words like “ecosystem.” UNR president Marc Johnson reiterated this idea at the Center’s opening.

“[We’re] celebrating the university’s responsibility to a rapidly changing world that craves innovation … and our university’s responsibility to a rapidly changing community that is positioning itself as an ecosystem for that innovation,” Johnson said in his opening remarks.

Much of these buzzwords are about creating an “economy driven by knowledge and innovation,” says Gautam. There’s a permeating belief among center representatives that innovation is synonymous with economic development, rather than just science for science’s sake.

The Innevation Center, which neighbors the Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum, is in close proximity to the area dubbed Startup Row (which spans First St. between Virginia and Washington St.), and it’s near the current financial district. This, essentially, symbolizes the desired relationship between culture and capital.

However, there’s still some concern about community accessibility. The membership cost, while justifiable to those already working within the technology sector, could be alienating to low-income community members, although there are rumors of free memberships for students and UNR alumni.

A lack of scientific and technological literacy requires those willing to teach at the level needed to empower community members; not addressing these issues means that the academic bubble would continue to grow but doesn’t become more inclusive.

Kelley says that outreach is key here. The goals of the Center are part of a larger cultural shift which includes community events like Hack4Reno and Startup Weekend Reno, as well as makerspaces such as Bridgewire and the Generator, which are open to people of all ages regardless of education or skill set. Many of these activities are free, too.

To encourage local participation from children, and to educate the populace to keep talent within the community, Kelley has been speaking at schools in the Washoe County School District. He also hosts public tours through the robotics department.

“We try to involve the schools,” he says. “We’re trying to get kids excited about robots, to show them that it’s not just a neat idea, but it’s something that they can go up the street and do.”

Researchers visiting schools helps demonstrate to students that their aspirations in science and technology can be achieved locally, and it’s one way to strengthen STEM education within Nevada’s K-12 system, which currently scores as one of the lowest school systems in the nation.

This discrepancy between top-level university research and a struggling K-12 system within the same community is one of many topics the center will have to address.

“It’s about the interface between the university and the community at large,” says Kelley. “There’s a lot of room for serendipitous happenings, and to see what goes on. A lot of people have ideas about what should happen. But at the same time it’s really refreshing for people to say, we’re just going to let innovation happen, and see where that interface between the community and the university takes us.”