Building the next generation of autonomous robots to serve humanity College of Engineering and Applied Sciences

Building the next generation of autonomous robots to serve humanity  College of Engineering and Applied Sciences

It appeared on CBS Sunday morning

CBS News videographers in the mine with robots.
Sean Humbert discusses the team’s award-winning research aimed at developing autonomous robots that can navigate challenging conditions. The team demonstrated the robots for CBS during a recent visit to the Edgar Mine in Idaho Springs, Colorado.

Watch on CBS News

New Grant/Competition Partners

Since completing the Subterranean Challenge, faculty and students have conducted follow-up research and competitions with numerous corporate and government partners.

  • Lockheed Martin
  • National Institutes of Standards and Technology – 2023 UAS First Responder 3D Mapping Challenge
  • National Science Foundation
  • USDA – National Institute of Food and Agriculture

Robotics Associates at CU Boulder

Research advancing the capabilities of Subterranean Challenge robots is led by several CU Boulder laboratories.

A thousand feet underground, a four-legged creature searches through tunnels in pitch darkness. With vision that pierces the darkness, she explores a spiderweb of paths, remembering every step and navigating with precision. The sound of its movements echoes eerily off the walls, but there’s no need to be afraid of it – it’s not a wild animal; It is an autonomous rescue robot.

It was initially designed to find survivors in collapsed mines, caves and damaged buildings, and this is only part of what it can do.

The robots, created by a team of researchers and students at the University of Colorado Boulder, placed third as the best American entry and received a $500,000 prize in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Subterranean Challenge competition in 2021.

Go further

Two years later, they began pushing the technology even further, securing new research grants to expand the technology and create new applications in the fast-growing world of autonomous systems.

“Ideally, you don’t want to put humans in harm’s way in disaster situations like mines or buildings after earthquakes; walls or ceilings can collapse, and some may have already collapsed,” said Sean Humbert, professor of mechanical engineering and director of the robotics program at the University of Colorado Boulder. “These robots can be disposable and still provide situational awareness.”

The team developed an advanced system of sensors and algorithms to allow the robots to work on their own – once given a task, they autonomously make decisions about the best way to complete it.

Advanced communications

The main goal is to get it from engineers directly into the hands of first responders. Success requires simplifying the way robots transmit data into something approaching plain English, according to Kyle Harlow, a doctoral student in computer science.

“The robots communicate using pure mathematics. We’re doing a lot of work on top of that to interpret the data right now, but a firefighter doesn’t have that kind of time,” Harlow said.

To achieve this, Humbert is collaborating with Chris Hickman, associate professor of computer science, to change how robots communicate and represent the world. The robots’ eyes – a LiDAR sensor – create highly detailed 3D maps of the environment, 15cm at a time. This is a problem when they try to transmit information – the huge amount of data clogs the network.

“Humans don’t interpret the environment in 15-centimetre blocks,” Humbert said. “We are now working on what is called semantic mapping, which is a way of combining contextual and spatial information. This is closer to the way the human brain represents the world, and is much less memory-intensive.

High-tech mapping

The team is also incorporating new sensors to make the robots more effective in difficult environments. The robots excel in clear conditions but encounter visual obstacles such as dust, fog and snow. Harlow is leading an effort to integrate millimeter wave radar to change that.

“We have all these sensors that work well in the lab and in clean environments, but we need to be able to go out in places like Colorado where it sometimes snows,” Harlow said.

While some researchers are forced to suspend work when a grant expires, members of the subterranean robotics team continue to search for new partners to push the technology even further.

Independent flight

Eric Frew, an aerospace professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, is using the technology in a new National Institute of Standards and Technology competition to develop aerial robots — drones — instead of ground robots, to autonomously map disaster areas at home and abroad.

“Our entry is based directly on the Subterranean Challenge experience and the systems developed there,” Frew said.

Some of the teams in the competition will rely on drones flown by human operators, but Frew said the CU Boulder project aims to find an autonomous solution that allows humans to focus on more important tasks.

Although many universities and private companies are developing autonomous robotics systems, Humbert said other organizations often focus on individual aspects of the technology. Students and faculty at CU Boulder work on all areas of systems and applications in highly challenging environments.

“We’ve built world-class platforms that include mapping, localization, planning, coordination — all the high-level stuff, autonomy, that’s all we have,” Humbert said. “There are only a few teams around the world that can do that. It’s a huge advantage that CU Boulder has.”

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *