On Autonomous Robotics

Long time no blog! I’ve now finished uni and have graduated, and thought I would put up a reflection on my final year project, entitled Autonomous Robot Operation for Simulated Disaster Environments.

It was a group project which I undertook with 4 other Computer Science students in my year. The five of us worked with the Warwick Mobile Robotics group, who have for some years been developing tele-operated robots as a final year group project for entrance into the RoboCup Rescue competition. The competition tests robots in simulated earthquake damaged buildings, with the aim being to identify “victims” – simulated signs of life that might suggest a human is trapped. The competition has sections tailored for both autonomous and tele-operated robots, and this year WMR wished to compete in both regions. They would design and build a robot using which we would implement algorithms performing Simultaneous Localisation and Mapping (SLAM) and Victim Identification.

I would be working with Jonathan Abbey on the SLAM algorithms – an exciting and difficult set of problems. SLAM is the problem of an autonomous robot navigating an unknown environment whilst simultaneously generating an accurate map of that environment. It’s an unsolved problem – there are many potential solutions, but none are complete. My tasks involved Data Association, the problem of determining which of the features the robot can currently see have been seen before; Occupancy Grid Mapping, which generates a map of the environment by recording what (if anything) occupies each grid location, and can be visualised as a standard map; as well as dealing with low-level device code and porting the code onto the robot. Two other members of the team, Jan Vosecky and Jason Cook, worked on Victim Identification code, which attempted to identify potential victims through vision using both standard and Infra-Red cameras.

As part of the project, I was fortunate enough to travel to Magdeburg, Germany for the RoboCup German Open. There, I was able to observe the solutions put forward by other teams. Of most interest were the entrants by Darmstadt and Koblenz. Both these teams have worked hard for many years on these problems, and have incredible robots which are very impressive to watch (check out Koblenz’s videos on YouTube – particularly the loop closing, which is just phenomenal). Our robot, unfortunately, was significantly less impressive. Infact, if it made a single turn we considered it to be a good run. The project will continue, and has a good team of CS students taking it over next year, so with a bit more development WMR should be very competitive in the autonomous region at future competitions.

More than anything, though, this project has really piqued my interest in autonomous robotics. It’s really interesting to read about the DARPA Grand Challenge, which pits unmanned vehicles against each other. These vehicles are incredibly impressive, with an ability to not only map their environment and complete navigational objectives, but to also observe obstacles in the form of other vehicles and to obey traffic laws.

I was watching the Grand Prix this weekend, and I had a thought: how far can we push autonomous vehicles? Could we, for instance, go so far as to create an autonomous Formula 1 series?

Imagine it: F1 cars, minus the heavy drivers and safety shells, autonomously driving around race tracks at speed. This poses more challenges than it is possible to list here, but amongst the major of those is the sheer speed of motion compared to the speed of computation. Can we process sensor data fast enough to react to the environment? Can we get sensors that feed data fast enough for us to even be able to react in a reasonable time at speed? Real-time SLAM is something no-one seems to worry about at the moment (and perhaps rightly so – if it’s not solved, why make it faster?), but it’s a challenge that needs to be faced sooner or later if autonomous robots are going to fulfill everything researchers are dreaming of.

Another challenge is simply keeping control of the car – F1 drivers can detect and react quickly to understeer, oversteer, tyre graining and a host of other problems that haunt these high performance cars. Can we make a computer that can also deal with all these?

And how about overtaking? Could we design intelligent AI algorithms which would plan and execute maneuvers – and could these algorithms perhaps teach us something, with no fear and the ability to rapidly judge and weigh multiple options?

I, for one, would love to see this. It looks like the University of Essex might be working along these lines, but it’s quite far away. Maybe if I get bored of Web Development I’ll try and start something…

In the meantime, enjoy a lovely video of our robot from our project, along with some fairly horrible music I composed using Garage Band.

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