Academics and Research / Current Issue / Magazine Feature

Building a Better ’Bot: DU researchers are leading the development of autonomous robots that could someday save lives

From maze-like fortresses buried in caves behind enemy lines to a traffic-choked intersection at rush hour, researchers at the University of Denver imagine robots boldly going where no human should want — or need — to go.

Quietly emerging as a DU specialty, the study of robotics is garnering interest among researchers in computer science, engineering and nanotechnology. In a field that finds its way into everything from industrial applications to toys, DU researchers are carving a niche developing robots that can wriggle, fly or roll into the Earth’s harshest environments — including crumbling buildings, guerilla hideouts, battlefields, forest fires and congested city skyways — to collect information and perform life-saving functions more safely and more efficiently than ever. There even are applications for colonoscopy robotics.

Robots follow a researcher

From civilian to military applications, DU's robotics team sees unlimited possibilities for making dangerous work safer and delivering time-saving and life-saving information. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

“We are looking at innovations in sensing, systems that can relay back vital information from difficult environments,” says Rahmat Shoureshi, dean of DU’s School of Engineering and Computer Science. “And we are looking at imaging technologies, intelligent systems that can make sense of what visual information they are gathering and send that information back to the operator.”


Robots that crawl

Associate Professor Richard Voyles’ wriggling, crawling, clamoring search robots are dubbed “TerminatorBots” for the way they drag themselves along, like a wounded robot in the movie Terminator.

The idea of a band of TerminatorBots probing the rubble of a devastated building for earthquake survivors might seem as far-fetched as the idea of fleets of unmanned airplanes blasting enemy positions. Yet half a world away, Air Force Predator drones scan rugged Afghan mountain ranges for threats and target al-Qaida positions with air-to-ground missiles while the “pilots” control their flight with a joystick from a virtual flight deck at a Nevada base. Robots are already a reality. At DU, researchers are making them better: tougher, smarter, more mobile, less expensive, smaller and more sensitive.

“What we try to do is look at how robots operate in unfriendly environments,” Shoureshi says. “That might be under the ground, in space or in enemy territory. For that work, not only are unmanned systems crucial, but they must be machines that can survive in these harsh environments.”

Voyles is lead investigator on a $2.1 million program funded by the National Science Foundation and others. He says with each discovery or application, researchers find new challenges. Working underground, for instance, standard visual monitoring systems are stymied by total darkness and require development of better self-adjusting sensors. And when TerminatorBots proved adept at clawing their way deep into ruins, scientists realized wireless communications were impeded by tons of concrete. While wires that the robots trail behind them could connect them to their masters above the ground, the weight of the trailing wire began to add up at greater distances.

Rolling rescue robot

A fleet of ground-roving robots may one day create a rolling mini-convoy around troop carriers, detecting roadside bombs before they can detonate. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

“Eventually, no matter how strong your robot is, the tether is too heavy to pull,” Voyles says.

Faced with a choice of limiting his robots to shorter leashes or adding more power-hungry motors to them, Voyles began looking for another option: wires that actually propel the robot using rhythmic blasts of fluid along the wires. By controlling shunts opening and closing at extremely high rates, alternately allowing fluid to flow and then stopping it abruptly, operators can use the force of the fluid’s forward momentum to push the control wires along behind the robot.

That technology led to an unexpected application: the possibility of incorporating nano sensors with water-hammer propulsion to make it easier for doctors to operate colonoscopy tools, making the process more comfortable for patients.

“Essentially, we’ve learned how to push on a string, which has a great many applications beyond traditional robotics,” Voyles says.

When efforts to use robots to help rescuers get a look inside a collapsed Utah mine failed due to mobility limitations, Voyles and his team found a new challenge. Now they are working on engineering propulsion systems that will allow direct side-to-side movement so the robots can navigate narrow passages without having to turn in tight quarters. In the pipeline are basketball-sized robots that can climb steep piles of debris and others that can slither like a snake through tiny openings; whatever it takes to get to places people can’t go and gather the information people need.


Robots that fly

Robots aren’t just good in tight spaces. Kimon Valavanis, chair of DU’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, has his eyes on the sky. Bringing his Unmanned Systems Laboratory with him from the University of South Florida, Valavanis has established DU as a player in the universe of remote guidance. Funded by grants from the National Science Foundation, the Army Research Office and a number of other agencies, Valavanis and his team of graduate research assistants (nicknamed “the Dirty Half Dozen”) imagine a dazzling array of possibilities in aerial and unmanned ground surveillance. From civilian to military applications, he and his team see unlimited possibilities for making dangerous work safer and delivering time-saving and life-saving information.

Robot helicopter

Unmanned mini helicopters can deliver real-time information without the time and expense of deploying their full-size counterparts. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

With a fleet of 11 unmanned helicopters in varying sizes and five fixed-wing unmanned airplanes, plus six ground-roving robots (five of which are custom built for the Army Research Laboratory), Valavanis and his students struggle to find the perfect combination of precise control and excellent data delivery with ease of operation and deployment. It’s tough enough to keep miniature choppers flying and collecting surveillance information, but factor in Colorado’s thin air and unpredictable weather patterns and the challenge is even greater.

“But just imagine the benefits,” Valavanis says. “Imagine one helicopter that can deliver this real-time information. There’s an accident, you deploy one unmanned helicopter, you can get past the traffic quickly, and immediately you have your engineers routing traffic to alternate roads; you determine if you need emergency vehicles, roadside assistance, all delivered instantly. And forget the time and expense of putting up a full-size helicopter. This is cheap. It’s fast, and it’s safe.”

Take those same miniature choppers onto a battlefield, and soldiers using controllers built on the same principles as the video games they played at home can peek behind hillsides and hover over cramped city alleys. Put the guidance and sensing technology into ground-roving vehicles, and soldiers can create a rolling mini-convoy around troop carriers, detecting roadside bombs before they can detonate.

Working feverishly in a tiny campus workshop, Valavanis’ Dirty Half Dozen pulls apart miniature models, fashions parts, and tests and calibrates rolling and flying robots, cameras, power sources and controllers in a quest for the perfect combination.

The work is hard, but the team oozes enthusiasm.

“We’re here pretty much all the time, every day, but where else can I do this?” asks PhD candidate Allistair Moses. “It’s an opportunity to get into all of this, to learn and to experiment and test. It’s exciting.”

Within the next 20 years, Valavanis says, the growing field of unmanned aircraft systems will be a $52 million annual industry. He rattles off a list of potential applications: wildfire spotting, homeland security, border patrol, mapping — even inspecting power lines that stretch across huge spans of the American West.

The DU researchers are poised to play a part. They’re already collaborating with military and space exploration programs and have been demonstrating their robotics technology for some commercial giants.

Chancellor Robert Coombe says DU’s focus on bridging the gap between raw research and commercial application brings that innovation to the world. At a recent question-and-answer session with parents, he noted that “more than a quarter of the engineering students who get a degree at DU also leave the University with a business degree.”

“We work as a business incubator with the idea of letting our students and our faculty take what they create to the next level, a level that will impact the community and the economy,” Shoureshi says. “The goal is not to educate traditional engineers, but engineers who find solutions for global challenges and economic prosperity.”


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