|Will region be robotic powerhouse?
By Tom McLaughlin
...SHALIMAR, Fla. -- It may be the most powerful indication to date of where the
future of robots is heading. Amazon, which has already changed the field of retailing,
is looking into using drones to deliver packages to customers.
...Whether it eventually happens is unclear, but it does point out how drones will one
day become a part of daily life. And it underscores why Okaloosa County is
considering building a $4.5 million indoor unmanned systems R&D center in Shalimar.
...Many areas are interested in the field, but an international group ranks Florida
fourth of 50 states for its potential to make money and create jobs. The potential is
so big, the Economic Development Council of Okaloosa County formed a committee,
dubbed the Unmanned Systems Network.
...“We believe this area is the perfect place for development of these systems,” said
Jenny Humbert, chair of the group.
...Economic development officials in Okaloosa County are confident that a sometimes
queasy public perception of drones could get a big boost from development of an
indoor facility, and they’re confident their corner of the Panhandle is where it should
...The county’s Economic Development Council, in partnership with the University of
Florida’s Shalimar-based Research and Engineering Education Facility (REEF), has
spent several years studying the feasibility of creating the 45,000-square-foot
complex to develop aerial, surface and underwater unmanned vehicles. EDC
Executive Director Nathan Sparks said a “go or no go decision” could be made within
the next six months.
...Plans for the research center were launched as forward thinkers began to
understand that technology would allow for smaller drones to be utilized in a myriad
of ways, both military and commercial. At an estimated cost of $4.5 million, the
research center would offer space not only to the military and military contractors, but
to students and commercial interests as well.
..."We've never had an environment where we can do a lot of research and
development and truly test the validity of these unmanned vehicles," said Larry
Sassano, Spark’s predecessor at the EDC, helped launch the idea. "If we can show
where these smaller vehicles are beneficial it might help validate the safeness of the
small vehicle drones."
...REEF is strategically located at the doorstep of Eglin Air Force Base, a huge
Northwest Florida installation where military research, development, test and
evaluation is conducted over both air and water ranges.
...Though REEF already plays a key role in important Air Force-related research and
produces world class engineers, it would get a boost from a dedicated unmanned
system test center of this type.
...“The opportunity to have something no one else has is certainly intriguing to me as
an economic developer," Sparks said. “We’re looking at a unique catalyst for the
emergence of a new industry sector.”
...Research of commercial applications of unmanned air, land and maritime vehicles
excites Sassano and other economic development professionals involved with the
indoor center project.
...In a recent study on the economic impacts unmanned aircraft systems, the
Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International produced a long list of
potential unmanned system uses. The list included law enforcement, fire fighting and
detection, disaster management, transportation, telecommunications and gas and oil
exploration. As these potentials are realized, the stigma of drones as simply a
weapon will be diminished, Sassano said.
...The indoor center would also further increase the unmanned system footprint
along the Gulf Coast Interstate 10 corridor stretching from Florida’s Panhandle to
...Fire Scout and Global Hawks are built in part in Moss Point, Miss. and training with
unmanned systems is done at military bases throughout the region. Tyndall Air Force
Base near Panama City, Fla., is home to full-scale drones used in weapons testing,
and the Navy uses maritime robots.
...The study by the Association for Unmanned Systems International determined the
unmanned vehicle industry had the potential to grow between 2015 and 2025 into an
$82.1 billion business and produce 103,776 jobs.
...It ranked Florida No. 4 in potential, and said that if Florida were to jump in with both
feet, the state could add 3,251 jobs and $632 million in revenues between 2015 and
2017. By 2025 Florida could create a $3.8 billion UAV industry and add 4,803 jobs to
the state employment rolls.
...“States that create a favorable regulatory and business environment for the
industry and the technology will likely siphon jobs away from states that do not,” the
...In addition to giving the thumbs up for the county to pursue the industry, Humbert's
committee also decided Okaloosa County would be a good fit for a UAV research
...A workforce of Air Force retirees and civilians who have worked in RDT&E fields
already exists and the county takes pride in providing its high school students
educational opportunities in the fields of science, technology, engineering and
mathematics – key courses for advancement into a research and development laden
...“There’s a lot of elements already in place to create a strong foundation for
industries,” Humbert said.
...Sparks said the University of Florida will have the final say in whether the research
facility is built on its campus, and a big consideration is to insure that the facility does
not go under utilized. Officials have said that some interest has been expressed from
□ □ □
The dawning of the humanoid robots
...The unmanned system footprint in the Interstate 10 region includes what one writer
called one of Florida’s few truly world-class R&D operations. It’s the Institute for
Human and Machine Cognition, or IHMC. And the Pensacola-based center will be
going toe-to-toe with some of the best minds in the world.
...This month in Miami, 14 of the most capable robots ever created will compete in a
simulation of how human-like machines could be used in a disaster to save the lives
...Each robot must get into a vehicle and drive to a building, then walk across a
debris field, remove obstacles blocking an entrance, open a door, climb a ladder,
break through a wall, close valves and attach a fire hose.
...The competition is staged by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Seven of the robots are the creations of the institutions, and seven will be identical 6-
foot-tall “Atlas” robots built by Boston Dynamics and provided by DARPA to the top
seven teams from a preliminary competition in July that was won by IHMC.
...IHMC’s research since it was first established in 1990 as part of the University of
West Florida involves getting humans and machines to interact more easily. It has
done a lot of work for NASA, including working on programs to provide locomotion to
Robonaut 2, which is currently aboard the International Space Station.
...IHMC not only won that preliminary competition, but actually blew away the
competition. It scored nearly twice as many points as second-place MIT. But MIT isn’t
the only heavyweight going against IHMC.
...The roster of teams includes CalTech, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and Lockheed
Martin, as well as some teams from outside the United States.
...But the favorite has to be the 22-member team from Pensacola. - David Tortorano