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Fortifying national defense with robot swarms, resilient materials


January 6, 2015

ASU engineering faculty members awarded highly sought-after research grants

Three Arizona State University engineers are undertaking research to make technological advances that would strengthen the capabilities of the nation’s military forces. Berman research Download Full Image

Panagiotis Artemiadis, Spring Berman and Yang Jiao have received Young Faculty Awards from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to support their separate projects.

DARPA, a part of the U.S. Department of Defense, selected 33 researchers from universities across the country to receive Young Faculty Award research grants in 2014. With the awards to Artemiadis, Berman and Jiao, ASU garnered the second highest number of grants for faculty members of any of the universities. The three are assistant professors in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, one of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

Brain-machine connections

Artemiadis will work on human-machine interface systems enabling someone to control multiple unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) solely through brain activity.

The system would not only establish brain-machine communication between the controller and multiple UAVs – referred to as a “swarm” – but will allow a controller to receive information from the vehicles and use it to guide a swarm in carrying out its mission.

According to DARPA, the research in “brain-swarm perception and control interfaces” looks beyond current state-of-the-art brain interfaces that involve control of only a single machine. It will instead tackle the challenge of using brain signals to coordinate the collective behaviors of a swarm of vehicles in performing complex tasks.

Artemiadis is already doing similar work for the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. Read more.

He will develop systems able to control swarms of various types of unmanned vehicles. The swarms may consist of hundreds of small robots (each only two to three inches long), hovercraft with four sets of propellers, called quad copters (each about a foot long), airplanes that could be about half the size of a Boeing 707 jet airliner, or “hybrid swarms,” such as combinations of aircraft, boats and underwater vehicles.

To achieve this, he will explore the capacities of the human brain to perceive, collect and process information from artificially intelligent technology.

Using electrodes placed on the head, current technology can receive and transmit signals from more than 120 specific locations in the brain, Artemiadis said. This will enable him and his research team to study activity in areas of the brain that process visual and auditory information, control muscle movement, and enable memory, learning and computational ability.

“We want to fuse all that information into looking at how the brain reacts to all the different kinds of events a person may experience when interfacing with a swarm,” he said. “It will be important to understand how the brain and the vehicles differentiate between the signals they send and receive to each other, and how that factors into human decision-making in controlling swarms.”

The technology would allow many military operations to be performed by remote control, making it unnecessary to risk the safety of soldiers by sending them into threatening environments.

His DARPA grant provides $250,000 a year for two years, with an option for an additional $500,000 in the third year of the project.

Controlling robot swarms

Berman is developing a system that would allow swarms of robotic machines to perform reliably in situations in which there is little prior data about the environment the swarms are operating in, and when Global Positioning Systems signals and radio communication are limited and unreliable.

The swarm-control strategies she is devising are designed to mimic nature.

“You see ant colonies and bee colonies, schools of fish and flocks of birds that have hundreds or even thousands of individuals that all act autonomously but still work toward a collective goal,” she explained. “My project is about getting robotic swarms to act like that. In a way, we are engineering robotic ants.”

That will require making small robots that can interact with each other and with their environment, with the ability to collaborate in performing tasks.

Such technology could perform security surveillance, search and rescue activities, and detection of chemical, biological and nuclear materials. Swarms could also monitor weather and climate conditions, transport materials, and collect and transmit data from underwater environs or from planets and asteroids.

“I hope to be able to design a swarm-control framework that lets you give directions to robotic swarms using normal language,” Berman said. “And that framework would also be able to generate programs that tell you what kind of robots and how many robots you need to effectively perform specific tasks in a particular environment.”

Her DARPA grant will provide $250,000 a year for two years, and possibly an equal amount for a third year of work on the project.

Recipes for resilient materials

Jiao’s research will focus on titanium alloys, composite metals widely used in aircraft and space vehicles. He’ll work to gain deeper knowledge of the microstructures of the materials so that he can devise a “recipe” for processing and fabricating stronger alloys.

He will need to come up with a set of mathematical tools and computational formulas that enable exact quantifications of complex multi-level microstructural patterns. That quantification can yield more precise predictions about how various environmental conditions or varying degrees of applied force will affect the microstructure of the alloys, Jiao said.

Beyond the quantification goal, Jiao will look to reveal what conditions are required to produce specific microstructures with properties that will result in more resilient titanium alloys.

“The idea is to show how to set up processing and fabrication systems to make an alloy with certain characteristics and properties so that you get a better and more predictable performance from the materials,” he said.

He wants to formulate a set of instructions for software programs that provide the mathematical recipes for such custom-tailored microstructures.

His methods will likely have the potential to be applied to improving on a wide array of other composite materials for myriad uses beyond aerospace applications, he said.

His DARPA grant will provide more than $300,000 over two years for the project and a possibly $160,000 for the third year.

Jiao’s project, and those led by Berman and Artemiadis, will give engineering graduate students opportunities to assist in the research.

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

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