On October 30, 2023, Caltech’s Center for Autonomous Systems and Technologies (CAST) hosted its Annual Program Review, showcasing research progress and future areas of interest. This year’s event, the first since 2020, was held in the Hameetman Auditorium in the Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics and coincides with the 6th anniversary of the Center’s founding.
Along with CAST collaborators from Caltech and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), event attendees included private donors and corporate partners from the Technology Innovation Institute, Beyond Limits, and AeroVironment.
Established in 2017 through the generous support of Foster and Coco Stanback, CAST’s mission is to develop science and technology to build autonomous machines that combine able bodies and intelligent minds. This mission is carried out by a dedicated and interdisciplinary team of researchers, including Caltech graduate students, postdocs, faculty, and partners from JPL, industry, and other universities. Throughout its first six years of operation, CAST has supported 98 projects, with 52 of those projects currently active.
This year’s Program Review began with welcoming remarks by Caltech President Thomas F. Rosenbaum; JPL Deputy Directory and Chief Operating Officer, Lieutenant General Larry D. James, USAF, Ret.; and Otis Booth Leadership Chair of Caltech’s Engineering and Applied Science Division, Harry Atwater—all of whom provided an overview of CAST’s impact and significance to Caltech and JPL. Following those initial remarks, CAST Director, Mory Gharib (PhD ’83), articulated CAST’s progress.
The event highlighted the diverse and interdisciplinary nature of CAST’s research on autonomous systems via 30 short talks and a robotics demonstration. The talks focused on three distinct themes: “Embedded Autonomy,” “Learning for Autonomy,” and “Autonomy for Space Exploration.” Caltech faculty members Aaron Ames, Joel Burdick, Anima Anandkumar, and Yisong Yue chaired the sessions on the first two themes, while JPL Principal Technologist, Issa Nesnas, chaired the third session.
"Embedded Autonomy" explored the transition of robotics from controlled lab settings to practical applications. Aaron Ames, Bren Professor of Mechanical and Civil Engineering and Control and Dynamical Systems, opened this theme by discussing the progress and practical uses of robotic systems capable of dynamic behaviors in unpredictable surroundings. One example is the M4 robot—inspired by the biology and movement of bats, snakes, and birds—that can reconfigure its body to achieve eight distinct types of motion. Joel Burdick, Richard L. and Dorothy M. Hayman Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Bioengineering; Jet Propulsion Laboratory Research Scientist focused on “pushing robotics in the wild,” a topic that includes using autonomous robots to tackle and mitigate disasters. Talks on this theme also covered the use of autonomous robots in disaster mitigation, such as the autonomous piloting of robots to study carbon exchange in the Southern Ocean, and the autonomous detection of gases near volcanoes to enhance our ability to predict volcanic activity.
During a tour of the CAST facility, Ames presented a physical demonstration of M4’s bio-inspired capabilities in real-time.
"Learning for Autonomy" centered on the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to inform and improve autonomous systems. Anima Anandkumar, Bren Professor of Computing and Mathematical Sciences, discussed ML's insights into phenomena like turbulence, while Georgia Gkioxari, Assistant Professor of Computing and Mathematical Sciences and Electrical Engineering; William H. Hurt Scholar, presented on computer vision's role in enabling autonomous object detection. Yisong Yue, Professor of Computing and Mathematical Sciences, covered neurosymbolic modeling, a hybrid approach that combines neural networks with symbolic reasoning for improved interaction with complex environments. Practical applications of this approach include accelerated acquisition from MRI scanners and the generation of understandable images of otherwise invisible objects, such as black holes.
The third theme, "Autonomy for Space Exploration," highlighted the role of autonomy in JPL's space missions. Nesnas, who leads robotics research projects and strategic activities in autonomy, chaired this theme. Nesnas emphasized that the need for autonomy in space missions will continue to grow as JPL's missions extend further into our solar system. Michel Ingham, Chief Technologist, Systems Engineering Division at JPL, discussed JPL's DARE project, which involves the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to explore celestial bodies like asteroids and comets. Another highlight from this theme included a presentation on Mid-Air Helicopter Deployment (MHD), a novel entry, descent, and landing architecture for future helicopter-only missions on Mars, a project in which Caltech graduates played a critical role.
Following the talks and robotics demonstration in the CAST arena, the event concluded with a reception at the Athenaeum for presenters and attendees. During the reception, David Tirrell, the Provost of Caltech, and Gharib delivered speeches underscoring CAST’s collaborative culture and its significant impact on autonomous systems research. It was a moment to celebrate six years of innovation at CAST and to acknowledge the vital collaboration between Caltech, JPL, and the corporate and private partners who provide funding for the research.
Moving forward, these ongoing collaborations position CAST to achieve even more profound insights through autonomous technologies, including a deeper understanding of climate change on Earth and the quest for signs of life in the farthest reaches of our solar system.