Beaver-inspired Autonomous Robots for Rough Terrain

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The new rover-like vehicle uses surroundings to build complex structures and overcome obstacles

In order to address the struggle that robots face while dealing with the randomness of nature, scientists from the University at Buffalo have come up with Beaver-inspired autonomous robots.

Algorithms for autonomous robots

The main focus of the project was developing new algorithms for the autonomous robot to work in irregular terrain. For an environment like an automotive plant, the task of creating algorithm is much easier as compared to wild environments where spaces are unpredictable and have the complex patterns.

To accomplish this, scientist studied a biological phenomenon called stigmergy- consensus social network mechanism of many insects. According to which, the complex nests that termites build are not the result of well-defined plans or deep communication. Instead, it’s a type of indirect coordination. Initially, a termite will deposit a pheromone-laced ball of mud in a random spot. Other termites, attracted to the pheromones, are more likely to drop their mudballs at the same spot.

Testing of Beaver-inspired autonomous robots

Scientists outfitted a mini-rover vehicle with a camera, custom software and a robotic arm to lift and deposit objects. They also created an uneven terrain by randomly placing rocks, bricks and broken bits of concrete to simulate an environment after a disaster like a tornado or an earthquake. The team also placed hand-sized bean bags of different sizes around the simulated disaster area.

The robot was deployed to continuously monitor and scan the environment. In the experiment, it picked up bean bags and deposited them in holes and gaps in between the rock, brick and concrete. Eventually, the bags formed a ramp, which allowed the robot to overcome the obstacles and reach its target location, a flat platform. In 10 tests, the robot moved anywhere from 33 to 170 bags, each time creating a ramp which allowed it to reach its target location.

“In this case, it’s like a beaver using nearby materials to build with. The robot takes its cues from its surroundings, and it will keep modifying its environment until it has created a ramp,” said says Nils Napp, PhD, assistant professor of computer science and engineering in UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

“That means it can fix mistakes and react to disturbances; for example, pesky researchers messing up half-built ramps, just like beavers that fix leaks in their dams,” he added.

Autonomous robots excel in factories and other humanmade spaces but struggle while dealing with the unpredictable environment. With bio-inspired robots like these, we might see a future where robots will be ubiquitous.