Continued legacy

Brooks, once an Air Force Base and home to the School of Aerospace Medicine, was a site of monumental discoveries. Today, this very same campus is continuing to make strides in development and changing our surrounding community. No longer a military site, Brooks is open to the public and dedicated to improving the quality of life for those who call the South Side home.

From military discoveries to autonomous vehicles, Brooks has a legacy of innovation

A conversation with Mike Brown from Southwest Research Institute

Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), in partnership with the City of San Antonio’s Office of Innovation, will begin testing autonomous vehicles on the Brooks campus.

Constantly on the lookout for innovative ways to improve the lives of those who live, work, learn, play, and stay in the area, Brooks is thrilled to be part of such a monumental experiment. We spoke with Mike Brown, an engineer for SwRI, on the research institute’s history with automated vehicles and why Brooks is such a great fit for this next step in their development.

How long have you worked with SwRI?

I’ve been at SwRI for about 22 years. I’m originally from Iowa, but once I graduated from Iowa State University, I came to work for SwRI. My entire career has been here. I got specifically focused on connected and automated vehicles in 2006.

What is SwRI’s history working with autonomous vehicles?

We started in 2006 with a project that we internally funded $5 million for. It was somewhat open ended and geared towards both military and commercial applications. We fund about $7 million per year of internal research, and this project was the largest in our history.

Once that program finished, we did a demo at the 2008 Intelligent Transport Services World Congress in New York City. At the time, automotive companies were just trying to avoid bankruptcy and not a time when they were going to take on investments. As a result, we mostly did externally funded work for military clients. By 2012, the auto industry had improved some, so we had a more balanced portfolio of military and commercial clients.

We do a variety of work in this space. We’ve automated over 20 different vehicles at SwRI, and we also work on specific niche technology. Most of our work involves independent test and evaluation, as well as research and development. When it comes to autonomous vehicles, our role has been closing the gap of the issues that arise with this sort of technology. We develop perception systems that the vehicle uses to avoid cars and pedestrians.

For the military, a major factor of perception systems is material classification and localization systems. The former helps the vehicle understand the materials around them, such as grass and whether or not it’s a threat. The latter is how a vehicle determines where in the world it is at any given time.

Has the development of autonomous vehicles stayed on track over the years?

Back in 2006, the United States military put out information that said a large number of their large ground fleet would be unmanned by 2015. Obviously that has come and gone and it’s proof that this has been a much more challenging initiative than people envisioned back then. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) had a number of challenges between 2005-2008, so we hosted a number of their vehicles on our campus so they could be tested in a closed environment.

What does innovation mean to you?

Innovation is developing new opportunities that don’t exist. We’re always looking five to ten years out to see how we can serve people’s needs. It’s not just about technology, but concepts and opportunities, too.

Why is Brooks a good option for testing autonomous vehicles?

The fact that Brooks is developing so quickly and establishing a model for similar communities makes it a perfect fit for this testing. Brooks has the opportunity to move people who may not have a reliable option. Automated vehicles could help people get from the new Brooks VIA Transit Center to their home or workplace, or from their home to medical services. Automated vehicle tech is going to take a while to mature and be used widespread, but at least in the near term we can help serve the needs of people who need transportation currently. If we can help people that have trouble moving, then that’s a good thing.

The minimal traffic on the Brooks campus also sets it up as a prime spot, as we can test the automated vehicles in a safer area before taking them to a high-density traffic area. There are some extremely exciting opportunities, and we’re thrilled to be part of it.

The growth and prosperity that has come to Brooks and the surrounding region in the past few years isn’t slowing down anytime soon.

See What’s Next

Brooks’ dedication to innovation continued with the announcement of the world’s largest sous vide plant coming to the South Side. Cuisine Solutions pioneered the industry, and their forward-thinking mentality fits right in with Brooks as a Smart SA Innovation Zone.