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USF to collaborate with Pensacola nonprofit on robotics research

There's a hidden gem of high-tech research on the Florida Panhandle that we're going to start hearing more about in Tampa Bay. It's called the Florida Institute for Human & Machine Cognition, a somewhat nerdy name for a Pensacola nonprofit organization established in 2004 by the state Legislature. IHMC works on projects in artificial intelligence, robotics, cybersecurity and machine learning. More telling, it's involved in cutting-edge technology that helps the blind to "see" and an "exoskeleton" that aids the paralyzed in walking. In the defense world, IHMC helps design aerial drones to become more (but not too) self-sufficient.

Earlier this month, IHMC signed an agreement with the University of South Florida to cooperate on joint research in such areas of "common strength" as surgical robots, underwater autonomous vehicles and human-machine coordination. IHMC chief executive Ken Ford and USF vice president for public policy and innovation partnerships Rick Baker (yes, St. Petersburg's former mayor) sent scientific teams to view each other's work and get excited about the possibilities of collaboration.

So who are these IHMC guys and what makes them tick? We recently talked to IHMC CEO Ford, 56, about what's ahead and how the USF affiliation might benefit both institutions.

Robert Trigaux, Times staff writer

We do both basic and applied research. We are unusually keen to see technology put into play and into use. That happens by attracting very talented people. These people bring technology to the market themselves. That's often how it happens at universities and how it happens here.

The exoskeleton for paraplegics is quite a high priority. This is a very difficult problem. Four or five groups in the world are working on this. They all know each other. It is collaborative but there's also a degree of pride and excitement in developing impressive technologies. The exoskeleton combines our work in bipedal, two-legged walking robots, assistive technologies and our interest in user interfaces. It is a remarkable impact for a person in a wheelchair to see them stand up and walk across the room. Since they can't feel their legs, the machine walks for them. This is a tech area that will explode.

The agreement with USF came about because (former) Mayor Baker and I have met over the years and we started discussing possible collaborations. When we opened our facility in Ocala, one of the goals was collaboration with USF. This led to a couple of research meetings and research days when we visited USF with key people and when USF researchers came to IHMC in Ocala. They exchanged notes and did some matchmaking.

For this to work well, there has to be passion among the researchers. They have to say, "This is great." They have to find a way to collaborate. We have had some collaborations in the past with USF in robotics, and also with the medical school. And we've done a good bit with the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. So we have a history there to some extent. Moffitt CEO Bill Dalton is on my board of directors.

There's potential for more collaboration with the medical school. And other areas seem to connect. USF's engineering school has lots of overlapping with us. And ocean sciences. The areas of monitoring the Gulf of Mexico and designing autonomous underwater vehicles are part of the discussions with USF.

We chose to expand to Ocala to be closer to major universities including USF, the University of Central Florida in Orlando and University of Florida in Gainesville. We've had an existing affiliation with UCF for some time. We've collaborated with UF but have no affiliation agreement.

The economic impact so far on IHMC has not been severe in federally funded research but the Florida economy has not been good lately. This impacts state budgets and influences the institute.

I split my time typically 50 percent on research and 50 percent on administration. It depends on my passion and my grant writing. I am mostly focused on process integrated mechanics, a technology for coordinating behavior of disparate systems. For example, how would a collection of robots coordinate together on a task? And how would humans stay in control of robots solving particular problems?

I am a computer scientist and much of my career is in artificial intelligence. So that's probably a natural background for that task.

We are getting close to robots mainstreaming into our society. One field where robots have burst onto the scene is military affairs. Unmanned vehicles on the ground and in the sky are increasingly important in the current conflicts. In the future the push will be for robotic systems underwater and on the earth.

Robots can certainly be autonomous with housekeeping duties and areas that do not require human judgment. But in military matters, people will need to remain involved in making decisions.

We're excited about finding these collaborations with universities in the region. They will be driven by scientist-to-scientist collaboration. But such fledgling partnerships will benefit from gentle leadership and attention. Both IHMC and USF have people in the leadership chain focused on keeping balls in the air and making sure that we remove any barriers to success.

>>fast facts

About IHMC

CEO: Ken Ford, computer scientist

Founded: 2004 by state Legislature

Based: Pensacola, with office recently opened in Ocala

Employees: 100-plus with 15 in Ocala

Seeking: more research affiliations with Florida universities

USF to collaborate with Pensacola nonprofit on robotics research 10/29/11 [Last modified: Friday, October 28, 2011 8:15pm]
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