IHMC savors success, looks toward future

  • July 22, 2015
  • /   Krissy Heinold
  • /   community-dashboard

Work is under way for the expansion at the Florida Institute For Human & Machine Cognition in Pensacola Tuesday, July 21, 2015. (Michael Spooneybarger/ Studer Community Institute)

The Florida Institute for Human & Machine Cognition is having a moment.

The IHMC Robotics team finished second at the prestigious DAPRA Robotics Challenge, earning the Pensacola-based team attention from media outlets including Time magazine and The Economist.

Work is continuing on the $8 million expansion of the IHMC headquarters near St. Michael’s Cemetery in downtown Pensacola, scheduled to open in spring of 2016. That project includes an expanded robotics lab, a sensory interface lab, administrative facilities and exhibition space.

{{business_name}}Sharon Heise, associate director of IHMC and vice chair of Innovation Coast. Photo credit: Innovation Coast

Sharon Heise, associate director of IHMC and vice chair of Innovation Coast. Photo credit: Innovation Coast

The new space cannot come too soon for Sharon Heise, associate director of IHMC and vice chair of Innovation Coast.

“We have four properties in Pensacola, and we are pretty much out of space in those facilities,” Heise said. “Our new building will allow us to consolidate more and continue to grow our Northwest Florida presence.”

“It will be terrific to have all of our Pensacola staff, from technical personnel to administrative support, within easy reach of each other,” Heise said. “A lot of powerful ideas come out of water cooler and hallway meetings, and a lot of problems are most easily solved in face-to-face conversations.”

The IHMC, which also has a research site in Ocala, specializes in research that looks at the way humans and machines can work together, Heise says, to extend human performance, “from human-machine collaboration and coordination to robotics to multi-sensory interfaces. These areas frequently overlap, which creates revolutionary advances at the intersection of technical fields.”

It’s cutting edge-stuff, and it’s happening in Pensacola.

Q: How do you see the expansion affecting local tech industries and the community?

A: I think that when technical organizations grow their presence and succeed in a place, it can inspire other organizations to grow or can attract new organizations to move from elsewhere and join them.

Another thing we are excited about is making our work more accessible to the public. Above our new robotics lab, for example, we are planning to build a catwalk so that visitors or tour groups can observe our research scientists at work without interrupting the work, which needs to be ongoing to maintain sustainable research programs.

Q: Why did IHMC participate in the DARPA Robotics Challenge?

{{business_name}}IHMC robotics team

A: IHMC focuses on technologies that help people and the human-machine partnership perform better. So, we have looked at robots largely in terms of being our teammates or our avatars, which means they will frequently be operating in an environment designed around tall, thin things with legs.

So, we have specialized in humanoid bipedal robotics, in particular gait, walking and push recovery, to give our robots the same mobility advantages we have. This particular DARPA challenge focused on humanoid robots for operation in humanitarian or disaster relief operations, where it might be advantageous to send a human, but you may not want to due to a compromised environment. Our interests and the DRC issues aligned very well.

Q: How does the DRC differ from other competitions that IHMC has participated in?

A: Competitions are more the exception than the norm, and these grand challenges are something the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has pioneered over the last decade. IHMC’s approach has always been to compete against the problem space, and in this case against the course and tasks rather than against other teams. In the final stages of the DARPA Robotics Challenge, six teams were able to work with a 6-foot-2-inch, 380-pound Boston Dynamics Atlas robot, and I believe we collectively created a greater impact in advancing the state of the art by working as a community.


Q: With IHMC placing second overall, what does that mean for your institution moving forward?

A: We are incredibly proud of our robotics group. They worked nonstop and extremely hard for three years to get to where they are today, and they are getting well-deserved recognition for their performance. And everyone at IHMC deserves credit for his or her help and support along the way. This is great for the institution as a whole.

Q: What do you plan on doing now that the competition is finished?

A: First of all, our robotics team deserves some relaxing time off with their families. Then, everyone will be back to work, looking for the next opportunity to win grants, perform research, advance the state of the art and take the next steps to solve problems of importance to the nation and society in general.

Innovation Coast is an alliance of technology and knowledge-based companies in Northwest Florida. Its mission is to grow, sustain and showcase the region's successful, vibrant technology community while attracting new business and investors to the area. Innovation Coast works in cooperation with other economic development agencies, including University of West Florida’s Center for Research and Economic Opportunity (CREO), to help grow the area’s successes, talent and potential.