Autonomous robots excel in factories and other manmade spaces, but they struggle with the randomness of nature.
To help these machines overcome uneven terrain and other obstacles, University at Buffalo researchers have turned to beavers, termites and other animals that build structures in response to simple environmental cues, as opposed to following predetermined plans.
“When a beaver builds a dam, it’s not following a blueprint. Instead, it’s reacting to moving water. It’s trying to stop the water from flowing,” says Nils Napp, PhD, assistant professor of computer science and engineering in UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “We’re developing a system for autonomous robots to behave similarly. The robot continuously monitors and modifies its terrain to make it more mobile.”
Testing the autonomous rover
Using off-the-shelf components, Napp and his students outfitted a mini-rover vehicle with a camera, custom software and a robotic arm to lift and deposit objects.
They then created uneven terrain — randomly placed rocks, bricks and broken bits of concrete — to simulate an environment after a disaster such as a tornado or earthquake. The team also places hand-sized bean bags of different sizes around the simulated disaster area.
Researchers then activate the robot, which uses the algorithms Napp developed to continuously monitor and scan its environment. It picks up bean bags and deposits them in holes and gaps in between the rock, brick and concrete. Eventually the bags form a ramp, which allows the robot to overcome the obstacles and reach its target location, a flat platform.
“In this case, it’s like a beaver using nearby materials to build with. The robot takes its cues from its surroundings, and it will keep modifying its environment until it has created a ramp,” Napp says. “That means it can fix mistakes and react to disturbances; for example pesky researchers messing up half-built ramps, just like beavers that fix leaks in their dams.”
In 10 tests, the robot moved anywhere from 33 to 170 bags, each time creating a ramp which allowed it reach its target location.
“Just like an animal, the robot can operate completely by itself, and react to and change its surroundings to suit its needs,” Napp said.