This post is also available in: heעברית (Hebrew)

A new interdisciplinary research center will focus on developing autonomous systems that think, act and assist independently, expanding the scope of human possibility to solve problems, as well as the range of exploration in extreme Earth and space environments.

Caltech, California Institute of Technology, recently opened its new Center for Autonomous Systems and Technologies (CAST). The goal is to improve the ability of drones and robots to think and react independently. The more that happens, the more they will be able to help humans gather big data, respond to disasters and explore space, the deepest parts of the ocean and other unreachable corners of the world.

According to, Caltech’s center brings together experts from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and multiple fields, including aeronautics, machine learning, geology, planetary science and computer science. Its researchers are already tackling big-picture challenges that stretch even a researcher’s sci-fi imagination: the Pacific Crest Trail project, a self-flying ambulance that could go 150 mph, a swarm of camera-equipped drones able to fly together or apart in order to create large-scale maps or images.

“Most systems today are very good at solving, very rapidly, the problems that they have been trained to solve. But if you throw something unknown in front of them, they get confused. … The systems are basically trained so much that they cannot see outside the box,” said Morteza “Mory” Gharib, the new center’s director and a professor of aeronautics and bioinspired engineering.

Rotobic labs are flourishing. USC has revamped its old robotics lab, turning it into a center focused on autonomous systems research, and MIT recently announced a $52-million building renovation with a similar aim.

The Caltech center includes the tallest indoor drone arena of its kind. It is three stories high. Inside the space, a wall of 1,296 fans can generate winds up to 44 mph. A side wall of 324 fans can create a crosswind. The arena can mimic any wind condition, even a hurricane vortex, and replicate fog and rain — to train drones to adapt to changing environments.

In the center’s assembly room, researchers can train robots to walk on an oval track. In the space robotics lab, students can test their designs in an enclosed area that simulates the frictionless motion of flying in space.