Inside Research: Taking Robotics to a New Frontier By Janet Miranda

Image of Aaron Becker

When you think of a swarm of robots, you likely picture the robot invasion coming to take over the Earth.

That’s not what Aaron Becker, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of the Robotic Swarm Control Lab, means when he explains his research. Robot swarms are autonomous robots with potential for use in hard-to-reach places.

“A robot swarm is a team of robots that work together on a common task,” said Becker. “Each of the individual robots can be relatively simple, but by working together they are able to accomplish larger tasks.”

Becker and the students that work in his lab seek to understand the best way to control a swarm of robots by imitating collective behaviors found in colony animals like ants, bees and bats. As part of the Subsea Systems Institute (SSI), they are working on a multi-sensor navigation aid system that will provide collision avoidance for multiple remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) in high-risk subsea inspection jobs.


Sixth Sense Robots

Today, most robots are programmed to work individually, not as part as a team. Researchers like Becker have been developing robotic systems that allow swarms of robots to work together in a collective.

In the subsea industry, ROVs are essential because they can be used to complete deep-water tasks that are dangerous or inaccessible for people.  The challenge is to find the best way for ROVs to communicate underwater.

“A swarm of underwater robots needs to be able to navigate without crashing into each other and that can share information about their position. That’s always a challenge for robots,” Becker said. “They must have a way to turn sensory information into relative locations. In air we can use cameras and microphones. However, underwater these sensors do not work as well.”

Becker and his team have designed and tested triaxial magnetic induction antennas, consisting of loops of copper wire bound across three orthogonal loops for underwater ROVs. These antennas are a cost-efficient solution to allow underwater assets to locate their relative range and orient themselves.


Current Efforts

With the help of the SSI, they have added two fully equipped robots with cameras and multiple antennas to better amplify the sensors the robots can use to communicate in underwater prototype tests.

One of the ROVs has already had a maiden underwater voyage in Lake Conroe, where the ROV rolled, flipped and twisted in every direction, with beacons and particle filters to figure out its location relative to other objects.

Steban Soto, one of the electrical engineering graduate students in Becker’s lab, said the project is a great research and networking opportunity that provides him with a foundation of knowledge and experience.

“It’s very hands-on, combined with the research that we do with the triaxial magnetic induction antennas,” said Soto. “I get a chance to implement this knowledge in experiments, and I think that experience is very important in robotics.”

Becker and his team have presented their research to Houston-based robotics companies that have provided feedback.

“It’s a great opportunity to network with industry and collaborate with them. Their feedback may guide us in a different direction,” said Soto.


Next Steps

The team is exploring areas of application for their ROVs after a breakthrough using non-symmetric signals to see the robots’ positions.

In the spring, team members will test the model in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory at the NASA JSC. There they will record data to then reconstruct robot trajectories, using computer models to verify their findings.

They hope to eventually test the model in bigger bodies of water, including seawater, testing it under different conditions and comparing their findings.