A Researcher Drives Change for Autonomous Systems

July 2021
Zach LaCelle
MITRE Employee Zach LaCelle

Zach LaCelle leads MITRE’s Robotics and Unmanned Systems group within the Artificial Intelligence and Autonomy department. He also leads the Mobile Autonomous Systems Experimentation (MASE) Lab, a MITRE resource for experimentation and testing of mobile autonomous systems.

As someone deeply familiar with the technical challenges facing ground-vehicle autonomy, I help bridge the gap between research and deployment. How? By bringing together MITRE experts and exploring key unsolved questions in autonomy.

The nation needs technology breakthroughs as well as effective policy and ecosystems to support it. My work addresses these issues. That’s a big reason why I came to MITRE—to apply my technical background in robotics and have real cross-cutting impact.

Although autonomy is a young field, I believe automated vehicles and systems will play a key role in the future of transportation and defense.

Different Routes to Destinations

In the MASE Lab, we focus on the prototyping, experimentation, and transition of mobile autonomous platform technologies to our government sponsors and the broader robotics community.

Mobile autonomous systems is a great field for researchers because it sits at the confluence of a wide range of technologies: state-of-the-art machine learning, traditional perception and controls, and everything from cybersecurity to communications and connectivity.

In recent months I’ve been leading work to transition new approaches in autonomy algorithms to specific sponsor problems. One initial effort involves our partners in the Army, where our experts are transitioning some novel approaches in vehicle behavior generation from the air domain to the ground domain. This is just one example of how we work to take theoretical autonomy research and apply it to our sponsor challenges. We bridge the gap from the conference paper to the applied world.

Another opportunity I’m excited about right now is a new effort spearheaded by MITRE to help the automated-driving industry effectively implement or improve their safety cultures by using  safety management systems. This work takes advantage of MITRE as a trusted convener of government and industry. It’s an opportunity for us to make a real difference in the safe adoption of autonomous vehicle technologies.


Collaborating Through Challenging Times

I’m very proud of my group’s ability to attract autonomy talent to MITRE during COVID-19. Autonomy is the ultimate cross-cutting challenge, and MITRE needs the best practitioners in a wide range of fields to provide our government agencies with the most valuable insights, guidance, and support we can.

Our workplace welcomes innovative research, encourages collaboration, and focuses on the toughest problems. We can hop onto a Teams call and get subject-matter experts in cybersecurity and privacy, machine learning, and policy in a matter of minutes. They’re always excited to talk and help solve problems.

This collaborative environment is my favorite part of MITRE.

—As told to Nancy G. Romps

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