12 April 2012

U of M Students Dream Up Robots

Story first appeared in Mlive.

Fifth-year University of Michigan mechanical engineering doctoral students envision a time when humans handle the complicated cognitive tasks and leave much of the rest to robots.

A lot of work now is done jointly by humans and robots, but humans could do much higher-level things and let the minor and miscellaneous stuff be taken care of by robots.

Hundreds of engineers and scientists at U-M's annual Robotics Day held at the North Campus Research Center, formerly Pfizer's local headquarters.

Researchers presented robots they've designed and developed and discussed the future of automated machines, including what some consider is an imminent move toward self-driving vehicles.

Driverless vehicles weren't the only soon-to-be-automated technology presented during the event. Others ranged from simulated robots less than an inch in size to self-navigating miniature helicopters that use sensors instead of GPS systems.

First-year U-M mechanical engineering doctoral students are helping develop the helicopter with a team of other graduate and undergraduate students. The robot is funded by a U.S. Navy grant fostering the creation of automated robots that use radar and laser sensors instead of GPS mapping signals, which are vulnerable to enemy interference.  GPS is the most reliable way to achieve the goals, but a common tactic during wartime is to scramble or block GPS signals.

The helicopter is designed to launch, navigate and land itself entirely using sensors.

While the unmanned arial robot isn't new —the U.S. military widely uses drones— researchers still need to master the robustness, efficiency and speed of autonomous vehicles that don't use GPS navigation systems.  The goal is to eliminate humans from the loop for military actions, which often prove dangerous.  Computers can react instantaneously, whereas sometimes a human can't or is incapable of reaching these obscure locations.

Further, designing and building the unmanned arial robot is an invaluable learning tool.  It is being performed as an educational tool, rather than the fact that it is a novel idea or groundbreaking.

Often mechanical engineering students spend more of their time simulating theory and design on their computers than they do applying it in the real world. During two years helping to develop an underwater robot designed to survey deep undersea using sonar sensors and a camera-based memory system, instead of a GPS, students have been able to spend the majority of their time working on a three-dimensional, real-world object.

That real-world implementation phase is on the precipice for driverless vehicles.

He expects companies will start rolling out driverless features by 2014 or 2015 and envisions a time not too long after when vehicles aren't owned singularly, they're shared. Similar to Netflix, someone could order a vehicle for an outing, that vehicle would drive itself to his door and then drive him to his desired location. If such a system materializes, the number of vehicles in Ann Arbor would shrink from 200,000 to 30,000.

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