Technology Alliances (CTAs) in Autonomous Systems,1 where significant collaboration with those partners is to be found. Three areas were highlighted during the review: replicating locomotion found in biological systems to improve robot mobility, autonomous manipulation of robots, and piezomicroelectromechanical systems (piezoMEMS) technologies to develop small-scale robotic systems. New updates on the project related to the CANID robot,2 mimicking the movements of a canine hound, were presented. The primary thrust of the new development was the addition of a flexible spine to the robot. This is a challenging and interesting project, and the addition of this key degree of freedom to a walking robot is a good idea, because it more closely resembles the complexity found in nature. There needs to be a concerted effort to better understand the physics of this machine. Researchers have proposed low-order models for the system, and it might be fruitful to continue this line of inquiry. Good modeling will be imperative in any numerical simulations required to explore gains that are possible and to guide the focus of new experimentation.
Work related to self-righting robots is of a very high caliber and also has direct applications in the field. This was evident from the fact that the project was conceived through interactions with soldiers who are often confronted with the task of retrieving immobilized robots in combat. The research seeks to develop solutions for a broad class of physical conditions that affect stability of mobile robotic platforms. The current focus is on examining the underlying mechanical issues of self-righting in a quasi-static environment. It was not clear how the upright, stable position would be sensed on a sloping surface, where self-righting is most likely needed. ARL’s intention to move toward a consideration of dynamics in 2014 is applauded.
The piezoMEMS research and associated small robotics effort, in the Board’s judgment, is first rate, with elements that are at the vanguard of this field. The robotic devices under development with integrated piezoelectric materials demonstrated work that is at the forefront of MEMS design, fabrication, and experimentation. Specifically, the work in motion generation at the MEMS scale is seminal. Large-amplitude motions are being created at the micron scale using integrated actuators, structures, and electronics, co-fabricated on silicon. Techniques and approaches to generating articulating limbs with integrated flexure hinges and actuators represent advances in the engineering of MEMS technology. This has broad implications and applications to numerous MEMS systems—for example, MEMS-based microscale sensors and instrumentations such as mass spectrometers on a chip, drug delivery systems, and chemical assay analysis, where controlling microfluids are of fundamental importance. The work being performed by ARL in the piezoelectric actuation of MEMS will impact more than just the creation of bioinspired microscale robotic systems.
The research projects in perception are of a high caliber. The work focuses on developing techniques that allow for developing a description of the robot’s environments from sensor data. While there has been considerable progress toward describing environment for the purpose of mobility, deriving higher-level descriptions such as subtle cues and references that distinguish different behaviors and intents, recognition of specific classes of objects and features that are directly relevant to tactical behaviors, and labeling of object, features, and terrain classes remain a challenge.
The current research plan is focused on three critical areas: perception on constrained platforms, robotic intelligence, and human–robot interaction. Within the area of sensing and perception on constrained platforms, the scale and size of platforms being explored in the autonomous systems enterprise pose technical challenges in sensor design. Sensors have to deliver the requisite accuracy and precision for surveillance and navigation, but they also have to reconcile with power limitations on smaller platforms. Other problems being addressed in the perception area include human detection in still images and strengthening object and material recognition capabilities, including an ability to recognize actions and imminent actions. The latter is based on scene parsing and action grammar and represents an
1 There are currently two active CTAs related to autonomous systems: Micro Autonomous Systems and Technology (MAST) and Robotics.
2 CANID is a quadruped designed to test hypotheses regarding dynamic bounding using an actuated compliant spine mechanism.