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From Real Steel to Reality

AUTHOR: Nina Welding

PUBLISHED: April 6, 2016

From Lost in Space to Real Steel, society has long had a fascination with the interaction between humans and robots. Recent years have seen even more interest, especially in academia and industry, in the study of human-robot collaborations as they relate to enabling technology for next-generation manufacturing systems, intelligent transportation systems, surgical automation, education, and more. Notre Dame’s Distributed Cooperative System Research laboratory (DISCOVER) is devoted to understanding how existing natural or man-made complex systems [cyber physical systems — robotic networks that can sense and respond] work … and how to make these systems more reliable and efficient, especially as we look toward future needs.

One of the newest projects in the DISCOVER lab, which is led by Associate Professor Hai Lin, combines control theory, machine learning, and computational verification to build a collaborative structure with performance guarantees — studying and verifying the ways a robot can figure out the most likely intention of its human partner and then using those intentions to regulate its own behaviors [responses] to achieve a common mission — the same way that human coworkers use the common goals of their “mission” and how each person works to interact with one another.

To support this research project, the DISCOVER lab purchased a Baxter humanoid robot from Rethink Robotics as a test bed. Baxter has two arms, a LCD display for a “face” that reacts to human interaction, and it stands five feet tall. It also has built-in sonar and camera sensors to detect humans when they enter its space, as well as integrated vision for object detection. The DISCOVER lab team is currently working to program specific activities into Baxter so that it can begin to learn, adapting to its environment, increasing its flexibility and re-programability. Baxter will be showcased during the upcoming Notre Dame National Robotics Week Event on April 10.

In addition to human-robot collaborations, the DISCOVER lab is working to develop design theories for more robust distributed cooperative systems,  systems that are scalable and reliable in unknown and dynamic environments. Such systems would be of great benefit when applied to the national power grid (coordination of distributed power generations and renewable energy resources), ground/air traffic networks (automatic collision avoidance), and manufacturing (automatic reconfiguration of production lines), bolstering infrastructure and helping to ensure public safety.

To achieve this, the DISCOVER team works with autonomous unmanned ground and aerial vehicles that they have modified with wireless communications for additional on-board sensing and processing capabilities. Much of their work in multi-robot coordination is funded by a National Science Foundation Career Award. For more information about the team’s efforts, visit the DISCOVER lab.