Using a $2.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense, Virginia Tech researchers will begin developing an experimentation site at the Virginia International Raceway near Danville, Va., as an initial step in the Joint Unmanned Systems Testing, Experimentation, and Research (JOUSTER) program.

The new program could receive as much as $12.2 million in defense grants over the next three years for research advancing the technology of unmanned military air and ground vehicles, said Charles Reinholtz, Alumni Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering, and Al Wicks, associate professor of mechanical engineering, both in Virginia Tech's College of Engineering, are the lead researchers for the JOUSTER project.

Unmanned and autonomous vehicles are increasingly important in military and search-and-rescue activities. Advancing the technology through programs like JOUSTER will make it possible for unmanned machines to do more of the dangerous work, such as finding land mines and conducting close-range air surveillance in military conflicts.

"Virginia Tech has played an important role in defense research over the years, and this grant for unmanned vehicle development will help Virginia Tech and Southside continue in that strong tradition," said Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), who announced congressional appropriation of JOUSTER funding during a ceremony in March at the speedway. Virginia Tech received the grant in June.

"We're conducting two sets of unmanned air-ground vehicle experiments in 2004," said Reinholtz, who, along with Wicks, has directed research and student projects on unmanned and autonomous vehicles for a number of years at Virginia Tech. "To our knowledge, this will be the first experimentation site devoted to both unmanned air and unmanned ground vehicles."

An initial set of experiments featured test vehicles supplied by Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, including a remotely piloted Yamaha RMAX helicopter and a Matilda ground vehicle. A second series of tests will be conducted this fall, linking an Athena Golden Eye ducted-fan aerial vehicle with an iRobot ground vehicle. "We're approaching the tests as a learning opportunity, but we also intend to collect a significant amount of performance data, develop performance benchmarks and supply all on-site support services," Reinholtz said. "We hope this work will demonstrate the importance of JOUSTER in the long-range plans of the Department of Defense's Joint Robotics Program."

Currently, few standards exist for unmanned vehicles used by the military, Wicks said. JOUSTER tests will help determine standards and evaluate whether these vehicles are functioning as required. The experiments also are aimed at finding out how well unmanned vehicles interact with humans who monitor and remotely control vehicle activity. "Improving the technology of machine-human interaction is critical," said Wicks. "Unmanned military vehicles will be remotely controlled by troops in battlefield situations." The researchers also plan to find ways to increase vehicle autonomy so that the machines can operate effectively with less — or no — human intervention.

A major goal of JOUSTER is to establish a permanent, state-of-the-art experimentation site at the speedway for use by the military and unmanned vehicle manufacturers, as well as by Virginia Tech researchers. Much of project funding will go to infrastructure development and data acquisition aimed at enabling the military and manufacturers to conduct their own experiments, Wicks said. Reinholtz and Wicks also hope that JOUSTER funding and research will foster the establishment of a national center for robotics at Virginia Tech.

"It's interesting to note that the strong showing of our student project teams over the years in competitions has resulted in the initiation of JOUSTER," Reinholtz said. "The Department of Defense is paying much closer attention to programs that can demonstrate their competence in such events." The teams that Reinholtz and Wicks advise have had great success. A Virginia Tech team was one of only 15 out of more than 100 competitors to qualify for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's 2004 Grand Challenge autonomous vehicle race in the Mojave Desert. In June, the Virginia Tech Autonomous Vehicle Team placed first overall and won six of nine awards during the international Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition at Oakland University in Michigan.

Although JOUSTER research will be led by Virginia Tech faculty, the program's headquarters will be in Danville at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, which was established by Virginia Tech, Danville Community College, Averett University and Southside Virginia organizations to bring technological and economic development to the region. Tim Franklin, the institute's administrator, will serve as JOUSTER's administrative lead.