Helton, Brad King Receive Major Defense Department Grants

Assistant Professor Deak Helton (Cognitive and Learning Sciences) and Associate Professor Brad King (MEEM) have been awarded two major grants from the US Department of Defense.

Helton has requested $467,017 to equip a Human-Robot Interaction Lab. King’s proposal includes $151,069 to support his work developing ion thrusters, used to power a new, small class of satellites. Both proposals will receive funding; the final amounts have not been determined.

“We are trying to build nanosatellites as small as cell phones that will be able to take pictures and relay them back to Earth,” King said. “They’ll need a propulsion system, a rocket engine the size of a thumbnail.”

The grant funds new equipment to test and develop this next generation of satellite engines. To remain in orbit, they use the thrust generated by ions jetting out the back of the satellite.

Helton’s grant will expand the Center for Virtual Reality and create a new Human-Robot Interaction Laboratory.

Increasingly, robots are being used as the eyes and ears of humans in dangerous environments, and the battlefield of the future could rely even more on robots. However, the military applications of robots, while intriguing, are still very limited.

The lab, which will have two remote control helicopters and ground robots, will allow researchers to study robot control, navigation, reasoning, remote sensing and more.

In particular, Helton is interested in developing robots that can tell when they are told to do the wrong thing. “Sometimes, people give bad commands, like telling a robot to go up a hill that’s so steep it will cause the robot to flip,” Helton said. “Ideally, the robot could question those commands and say, ‘Do you really want to do this?’ It’s like when the computer says, ‘Do you really want to delete this?'”

Co-principal investigators on the project are Jindong Tan (Electrical and Computer Engineering), Amlan Mukherjee, Yue Li (Civil and Environmental Engineering), Robert Pastel, Nilufer Onder (Computer Science) and Jason Carter (Exercise Science).

“Michigan has a proud tradition of supporting our nation’s military services, and with this funding Michigan Tech will continue to play an important role in critical defense research programs,” said U.S. Senator Carl Levin. “These investments in advanced military technology and robotics help ensure that our armed forces remain the best equipped and most advanced in the world.”

“Michigan’s universities have a strong tradition of being on the cutting edge of innovation and research,” said U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow. “I am pleased that Michigan Tech is receiving the funding it needs to continue this state-of-the-art research and further solidify our state’s position as a leader in defense technologies.”