Students create group-minded robots
By Aimee Lim, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Friday, August 3, 2007
A group of students from the Thayer School of Engineering have been working on the development of robots that cooperate with each other to execute tasks and form patterns. The project is expected to have implications not only for future robotics research, but for homeland security and military operations as well.
Professor Laura Ray of the engineering department, who has guided the students in their research, compares the robots to humans in their capabilities.
"You can draw analogies from the animal kingdom and even humans, and make robots work the same way," Ray said.
The goal of the project is to develop robots that can be used to perform tasks too dangerous for humans. In one scenario proposed by Ray, the robots would be able to enter the area of a dangerous chemical spill and track the plumes when they are taken away by the wind, resulting in a less harmful response than if humans were to undergo the task. Ray says the research group aims to build robots with "meaningful dynamics."
"That's really our purpose right now -- to develop the algorithms to make useful interactions between robots in groups," she said.
These interactions are determined by the idea of cooperative control. The robots "cooperate" by responding to each other's actions. Ray said there are many types of cooperation, ranging from robots coming together in the center of a field from random positions and forming a reasonable formation for the task at hand, to passing each other and communicating when they have found information for the group. "Control" is administered by the human who makes sure the robots do not collide or roam too far from the group. Ray said that unlike common commercial robots that move at a slower rate, she would like to see the research robots run at speeds of 20 to 25 miles per hour.
Aside from future robotics research, developments on this project may influence military use of robot technology in fieldwork. Currently, military operations in Iraq require robots in the air, water and land, explaining the recent boom of military investment in robotics.
"If you could send a robot out to gather intelligence, it would reduce the number of people you put in harm's way," Ray said. At the present, the military uses robots in a one-on-one fashion -- one soldier per robot. Ray said that this makes operations personnel-intensive and inefficient. A possible outcome of the group's research is for one soldier to be able to control the actions of multiple robots.
"If one of the things goes down, it's not the end of the mission," said Luke Wachter '06 Th'08, a masters student who is part of the Thayer team. "But if you just have one big robot doing the mapping or scouting, if that goes down, you're in a tough spot because you don't have anything to back it up."
Wachter's responsibilities focus on improving the robots' communication techniques.
"It's been fun working with them," he said. "We just had our first run where we had three of them running on their own without human supervision. To see that happen was pretty amazing."
Wachter said that the robots are prototypes and that while the actual robots may not make a direct appearance in national security operations, the methods and controls behind them will most likely have an impact on such operations.
Robots are also in demand in the first responder market, among police, firefighters and other emergency networks. Police forces and SWAT teams are among the smaller organizations that use robotics in dangerous operations. Ray thinks that along with first responders, other research facilities may want to adopt her group's methods in their work with robotics.
Currently, there are seven cooperative control robots, four of which are completely operational.
Participants in the research are diverse in their pursuits, ranging from several undergraduate and honors thesis students to Ph.D. candidates who are using the robots as part of their individual research projects.
Sponsored by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Army Research Office, among other organizations, the research group will continue to work on the robots, maintaining a low cost yet high quality standard with accelerations comparable to military robots.
"I think once you have a capability like this, the kinds of things you can do are endless," Ray said. "I think these will be in service many years."