The National Science Foundation (NSF) is sponsoring an effort by three universities to allow teams of small robots to collaborate and to coordinate their actions at a disaster site. The NSF reports on this work in progress in "Turning robots into a well-oiled machine." These small robots have a cylindrical shape with a diameter of 3.5 cm and a length of 10 cm. Named Scouts, they are built with commodity-off-the-shelf (COTS) electronics and equipped with a video camera, several infrared range finders and many sensors. A dozen of them can perform complex tasks in actions controlled by a human operator through a team leader, the MegaScout, which is about 37 cm long.
Here is a picture of such a third-generation COTS Scout (Credit: University of Minnesota Center for Distributed Robotics).
Here is some general information about the project.
Led by Nikos Papanikolopoulos, researchers at the University of Minnesota, the University of Pennsylvania and Caltech are devising software that will allow small robots to coordinate their actions and carry out complex commands from a human operator. The work is supported by a $2.6 million Information Technology Research award from the National Science Foundation (NSF), an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering.
How do you develop team building skills in robots?
Robots need far more than the team-building exercises offered by corporate consultants. To be a useful tool at disaster sites, robot teams need software for collaborative sensing, for distributed exploration and mapping, for reliable team coordination independent of a human operator and for effective communication with their operators.
"Effective teamwork doesn't translate easily into electronics, and at disaster sites, it could literally mean the difference between life and death," said NSF program officer Rita Rodriguez. "Addressing the research challenges requires a multidisciplinary approach and, for this project, the combined expertise of the three-campus research team."
It was also a tam effort between the universities, with expertise in robotic vision coming from Pennsylvania and in sensor-based exploration coming from Caltech, while the overall responsibility to deliver the robots was given to Minnsetota.
And these robots are pretty tough.
Called Scouts and built with off-the-shelf electronics, the robots have been designed to withstand a lot of punishment. Scouts can survive a six-story drop into a collapsed building or a 100-foot throw into unfamiliar territory.
The latest Scouts incorporate a video camera, three infrared range finders, two light sensors and a pyroelectric sensor (for sensing body heat) -- plus a two-way remote-control system that supports frequency hopping and signal encryption.
As it seems that human operators have some difficulties to control more than a few robots, the Minnesota team developed the concept of a robot acting as a team leader.
An emergency response robot "dream team" might have a roster of a dozen or more Scouts with a combination of sensing devices and, through the team leader, could perform more complex tasks and report back to a human operator.
The team leader, in this case, will be the Minnesota-developed MegaScout, a 15-inch-long sibling of the Scout which can carry larger sensors, a manipulator arm (for opening doors, lifting Scouts and similar tasks) and the processing power to control the Scout team in the field.
Here is a link to a short video of the Scouts in action (RealPlayer format) (Credit: University of Minnesota Center for Distributed Robotics).
And for more information about the Scouts, please visit the University of Minnesota Center for Distributed Robotics website. It contains the technical specifications and lots of pictures and videos.
Source: The National Science Foundation, April 12, 2004, via EurekAlert!