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Grant Brings Thrills and Excitement to Computer Science Prof

By Beth Potier, Media Relations
October 14, 2009

At Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, Wheeler Ruml explores a captured MIG-23 fighter jet.

Contrary to popular belief, computer science can be thrilling.

Just ask Wheeler Ruml, assistant professor of computer science and member of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) prestigious Computer Science Study Panel. As part of the year-long program, Ruml has leapt from a paratrooper training tower, witnessed a mid-air refueling of a B-2 stealth bomber from the belly of a U.S. Air Force refueling plane, and gained top-secret security clearance to meet with U.S. intelligence officials.

And from Oct. 25 to 29, 2009, Ruml – one of just 12 junior faculty from around the country selected for the program – will visit the CIA, the National Security Agency (NSA), the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA), and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) in Washington, D.C. for the final of the program’s four field trips. Other trips took him and the other panel members to the Pentagon, a nuclear submarine and an amphibious assault ship in Norfolk, Va.; Fort Bragg in North Carolina; and Edwards Air Force Base in California.

“The idea of this program is to teach us enough about the Department of Defense that we could make meaningful contributions. What problems do they have? How are things done?” says Ruml.

For Ruml, whose research is in artificial intelligence, the trips have helped him understand the structure of the military and think differently about how his work might be useful to the Department of Defense. Meeting military personnel, for instance, gave him insight into designing user interfaces.

 “I didn’t have a conception that a lot of the heavy lifting in the military is done by 19-year-old guys who didn’t go to college,” he says.

As a member of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's prestigious Computer Science Study Panel, Wheeler Ruml witnessed the refueling a B-2 stealth bomber in midair from the belly of the refueling plane.

In addition to these up-close looks at Department of Defense technology, Ruml received a research grant of $99,220. Later this fall, he’ll have the opportunity to propose a project and compete for an additional $500,000 over two years.

Ruml’s research in artificial intelligence concerns algorithms for what are known as shortest-path problems; he describes his work as “planning and optimization and decision-making, particularly practical methods for doing these things.” Mapping software like Google Maps uses shortest-path algorithms to quickly determine the shortest path – literally – from the user’s starting point to the destination, but Ruml notes that problems with the same underlying mathematical structure are also at the inner workings of robots, from an airplane’s autopilot to the automated vacuum cleaner Roomba.

“If a robot is given a goal, like ‘clean up my living room,’ what should it do next? That’s the kind of problem my group works on,” he says.

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