Thursday, June 23, 2016

2016-06-21: Autonomy Incubator Showcases Stable of House-Made Research Vehicles

Here at the Autonomy Incubator (Ai), we're more affectionate with our robots than some people are with their pets. Especially when it comes to the ones we made ourselves. Take, for example, the extreme attachment everyone seems to have to Herbie and Herbie-anna-etta-ella, our pair of rovers.

"Herbie is my dream child. He is special to me. He's mine," PI Ben Kelley said. Ben built Herbie in the fall of last year because he wanted to create a safe, efficient way to test control algorithms. "Especially now that we're flying larger UAVs... I made Herbie as a test platform to throw something on him quickly. "

"It's quicker, easier, and safer to test something on a little rover that moves at half a mile an hour," as opposed to flying a fully-rigged UAV every time, he continued.

Intern Kevin French, who has been at the Ai since January, was so inspired by Ben and Herbie that he built a companion rover in Herbie's image: Herbie-anna-etta-ella.

"We couldn't decide on a name," Kevin explained.

Herbie and Herbie-anna-etta-ella were designed with the needs of autonomy researchers in mind. They're each equipped with a large top platform, specially designed for different PIs to install and uninstall their equipment for different tests.

"Herbie keeps getting additions. And subtractions. He's an evolving creature," Ben said. "He used to have a lidar, but now he has an SVO camera on a pole on his head."

In addition, because the rovers are land vehicles, they take less time to set up and last longer on a battery charge than aerial vehicles. The result is faster results, and also safer research: while UAV test flights mean clearing the flight area and standing behind a net, a researcher can stand directly in front of a rover test without worrying about their algorithm going awry.

"With ground vehicles, if they run into each other, it's not gonna be a big deal," Kevin said. This feature is especially relevant to Kevin's research, which focuses on using cellular automata to monitor the behavior of several vehicles at once. I know that's a lot of jargon, so let me briefly explain:

If you ever learned about Conway's Game Of Life in computer science class, then you know what a cellular automoton is: a grid of cells that can be in "on" or "off" states, depending on the number of "on" cells surrounding a cell at a given moment. You can play all kinds of games in this grid, and it's a really useful model in machine learning for thinking about how entities interact. If you'd like to play around with Conway's Game of Life yourself, here's a place you can do it.

A "pulsar" formation in the Game of Life. (source)

Taking cellular automata as a starting point, Kevin creates rules for the UAVs in his simulation based on the activity in the cells around them. He can give them rules to adjust their behavior however he wants— encourage grouping, for example, or promote diversity of motion. In this graphic from his simulation, the vehicles (the black dots) have been told to stay as far away from each other as possible in order to prioritize collision avoidance. The green dot is the centroid, or the center of the fleet.

Crazy stuff, right? So, given how complicated multi-vehicle autonomous systems can be, rovers are an obvious choice for early-stage testing. They're slow, they're easy to observe in close quarters, and they're as adaptable as you could ask a vehicle to be. Before Kevin starts trying to manage a flock of micro-UAVs with his algorithm, Herbie and Herbie-anna-etta-ella let him get his research done.

There's an ongoing discussion in the scientific community about machine learning and the role autonomous machines will take in future daily life. Seeing Ben and Kevin's unbridled joy over the Ai's family of research robots is a cheerful peek into a future where man and machine happily coexist.

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