May 252011
 

There isn’t a radio-control handset in sight as several small robots roll briskly up the hallways of an office building.

Working by themselves and communicating only with one another, the vehicles divide up a variety of exploration tasks — and within minutes have transmitted a detailed floor map to humans nearby.

This isn’t a future-tech scenario. This advanced autonomous capability has been developed by a team from the Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Pennsylvania and the California Institute of Technology/Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). A paper describing this capability and its present level of performance was presented in April at the SPIE Defense, Security and Sensing Conference in Orlando, Fla.

“When first responders — whether it’s a firefighter in downtown Atlanta or a soldier overseas — confront an unfamiliar structure, it’s very stressful and potentially dangerous because they have limited knowledge of what they’re dealing with,” said Henrik Christensen, a team member who is a professor in the Georgia Tech College of Computing and director of the Robotics and Intelligent Machines Center there. “If those first responders could send in robots that would quickly search the structure and send back a map, they’d have a much better sense of what to expect and they’d feel more confident.”

The ability to map and explore simultaneously represents a milestone in the Micro Autonomous Systems and Technology (MAST) Collaborative Technology Alliance Program, a major research initiative sponsored by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory. The five-year program is led by BAE Systems and includes numerous principal and general members comprised largely of universities.

MAST’s ultimate objective is to develop technologies that will enable palm-sized autonomous robots to help humans deal with civilian and military challenges in confined spaces. The program vision is for collaborative teams of tiny devices that could roll, hop, crawl or fly just about anywhere, carrying sensors that detect and send back information critical to human operators.

The wheeled platforms used in this experiment measure about one foot square. But MAST researchers are working toward platforms small enough to be held in the palm of one hand. Fully autonomous and collaborative, these tiny robots could swarm by the scores into hazardous situations.

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