New Aerial Robotic Technology Takes Flight:
In the future, robots will likely do everything from helping fight fires to boosting crop productivity. According to a 2014 report by employment law firm Littler Mendelson, robotics is the fastest growing industry in the world. And it’s easy to see why: The field is transforming everything from aviation to medicine to surveillance.
While Illinois researchers have been at the forefront of the field for decades, CSL is upping its investment in robotics—particularly in regards to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). This spring, the Intelligent Robotics Lab is opening in the new CSL Studio space under the direction of Professor Naira Hovakimyan. The lab will provide space to more than a dozen researchers for developing smart UAVs and other robots with the aim of creating a new generation of robots that can seamlessly interact with humans.
“It’s clear that robotics will play a key role in reducing the costs of and compensating for the limitations associated with a human workforce,” said Hovakimyan, a professor in mechanical science and engineering.
When a fire breaks out, for example, drones could be deployed to capture information about the scope of the fire or the location of survivors, sending real-time information to firefighters before arriving on the scene. UAVs could also be used to image cornfields, sending back visual clues about moisture conditions or chemical
requirements to agronomists. Hovakimyan has research projects in the works that would enable both scenarios.
To use drone technology in a growing number of applications, researchers will have to overcome numerous technical problems. Among them: Devising a way to navigate drones in GPS-limited environments, processing a deluge of data in real time, creating more energy-efficient drones with longer-lasting battery power and many other challenges.
With its 13-foot ceiling, the Intelligent Robotics Lab will provide an optimal space for researchers to conduct their work. It will be outfitted with a motion-capture system that will provide feedback crucial in location estimation in the absence of GPS, which is severely limited indoors.
Hovakimyan aims to bring together more than a dozen faculty members from Aerospace Engineering, Computer Science, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Industrial Systems and Enterprise Engineering, and Mechanical Science and Engineering to collaborate in the space.
“Our hope is that this lab will provide an interdisciplinary work space where we can work together to create the next generation of drone technology,” she said.
Robots are hardly an unusual sight at CSL. Here are a few that you might see within our walls:
Baxter, a robot housed in CSL, is a low-cost robot designed to help automate manufacturing in small- and medium-sized businesses. CSL’s Tim Bretl (Aero) and his graduate students are testing their hardware on Baxter, who could be used to assemble flexible parts, such as installing a cable harness in a car. In addition to the practical side of the research, the researchers are working to add aspects to their theory, such as taking into account external forces, like gravity, and obstacles.
Raven II Surgical Robot
The Health Care Engineering Systems Center (HCESC) will welcome the Raven II, an open source surgical robot, this spring. The robot will provide a platform for the research and development of new health engineering technology. It was purchased through a research equipment grant given by the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, with the support of faculty from the Departments of Computer Science, Mechanical Science and Engineering, Bioengineering, Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering, Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Coordinated Science Laboratory.
Mobile computing has traditionally implied mobile clients connected to a static infrastructure. Roy Choudhury’s research is breaking away from this point of view and envisions the possibility of injecting mobility into network infrastructure.
In the near future, his team envisions WiFi base stations on wheels—called robotic WiFi—that move to optimize desired performance metrics. Movements can be in the scale of few inches on the floor, or perhaps on larger scale on top of false ceilings in a building. In larger settings, the robotic base stations can even be controlled from the cloud to organize them into desired topologies that best optimize network performance. In the future, perhaps cell towers could also be mobile—quad copters could fly out and hover strategically near users to offer high fidelity wireless connections.
Roy Choudhury and his students are developing algorithms on top of a platform of Roomba robots and various quad copters to make wireless networks better, both indoors and outdoors.