By Brian Huse, Director, Marketing & PR, RIA
Somewhere over Afghanistan an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) loitered as a pilot and two sensor operators checked for threats on a dusty road to be used by a military convoy. Back in America, parents and kids were free for an afternoon of sledding on snow covered slopes. On a campus in Ann Arbor, Michigan, students prepared to be recognized for a swarm of robots that won first place and $750,000 in a global competition for autonomous ground robots.
On a Sunday, two kids (Mitchell and Ethan Huse) recently off the snowy slopes of Kensington Metro Park ended up at the University of Michigan campus to see the Wolverines take on the Iowa Hawkeyes in a Big 10 matchup. Little did they know that after the game they would be walking outside in the frigid night air with two of the robots and some of the students that won the big prize.
At eight- and five-years-of-age, neither of the Huse boys would likely think how thousands of miles away “robots” flew the skies to help protect combat troops in deserts full of sand almost as white as the snow under their boots. For that matter, they had no real appreciation of having seen Tim Hardaway Jr. drain 19 points to lead U of M scorers while Darius Morris posted just the third triple-double in Wolverine history (Gary Grant and Manny Harris) in a Michigan 87-73 win.
They just knew they were happy. And safe. And free to dream about more sledding or new adventures with robots.
Had it not been for a gift of tickets from his boss at work, a dad on the staff from Robotic Industries Association would not have been to the game at all, and his two kids would not have seen the fun and action that night. Enter yours truly, Brian Huse, Director, Marketing & PR, at RIA. I lucked into those tickets at our holiday party back in December – a prescient move from my boss, Jeff Burnstein, as those tickets were destined for a night that would feature a big win for U of M in many ways.
Since 1961 robots have been used to free man from danger. That is when Joseph F. Engelberger sold the first industrial robot to General Motors for handling parts in the hot, heavy task of die cast operations. A Navy man himself, Engelberger understood the risk soldiers take, and though he never pursued military applications for robots he did seek to remove people from harm’s way. For instance, back then it took its toll to breathe foundry fumes, and he knew that through robotics it was possible to give people safer places from which to work.
For 50 years robots have served in the worldwide workforce, especially in the automotive industry, but in today’s world half the robots sold go into other areas. They are now found in labs, consumers goods packaging, semiconductor production and even food processing.
An entirely different category of robots go into military applications.
Wherever they are found, exciting new careers and job opportunities in robotics have become main stream. Students like Johannes Strom and Ryan Morton at U of M have spent years developing robots that can be used for autonomous ground operations, and their team’s first-place win at a military sanctioned event underscores the variety of drivers pushing robotics technology today.
What gave U of M’s team the edge in their competition? For its Big 10 game at Crisler Arena it was a combination of outstanding effort by many teammates. And as we saw at half-time when the U of M robotics team was honored with a big, ceremonial check for winning the competition known as MAGIC (Multi Autonomous Ground-robotic International Challenge) it was no doubt great contributions from students such as Ryan Morton and Johannes Strom.
As we walked out of Crisler Arena, my boys and I just happened to converge with those robots that won the MAGIC competition. I caught up to Johannes Strom as he strode along behind the ‘bots. We soon had a gaggle of boys (mine included) all around. Little feet danced here and there and the robots deftly avoided them despite all the unpredictable moves.
“What gave your robots the edge to win?” I asked Strom.
“We fielded the most robots,” he told me. “We had 14 in the competition and 24 altogether.”
It wasn’t quite so simple, of course. These robots also did better than all the others at finding and eliminating threats. And they did it with a small ratio of operators to robots (1:7 to be precise).
“UAV’s have 12 person crews,” said Strom. The idea, he explained, is to have more robots than operators – like a swarm of 14 run by two people. That turns logistics and economics on its head compared to the support staff needed for UAV’s. (It takes more than just the pilot and sensor operators to fly a UAV as mentioned earlier – in fact a team of 55 is typically assigned to a force of four UAV’s. Defense Update.)
It was cold outside Crisler Arena (21 degrees F) and Strom’s hands were stuffed in his pockets as we walked and talked. The crowd got bigger and one of the kids asked who was controlling the robots. Strom pulled his hand out of his pocket and waved his iPhone.
“You have an app for that?” I asked, unable to keep the grin off my face. Just so, he admitted, then he had to steer his robot around an intruding foot and into the snow a little bit. No problem; the robot rolled through it not missing a beat. But he waved Ryan Morton over. He was carrying the big cardboard check for $750,000 and took over the narrative for me so Johannes could stay focused on driving his robot.
We walked a bit further and I learned more about the robots. Google supplied more background when I got home, and I had already seen some of this on Robotics Online, but this in-person experience was truly amazing. The robots were hardy enough to go out in the snowy, cold night and nimble enough to handle a pretty chaotic scene.
In autonomous mode the robots use GPS and LIDAR combined with vision. I was told they actually lost points for using GPS (not always dependable signal in a concrete jungle), but the robots have a very robust navigation system backup in the dual sensors of laser radar and machine vision. The battery is lithium ion (LiFePO4 to be precise) and gives them enough power for four hours of continuous operation. A laptop and a lawn mower chassis give it smarts and mobility, and rapid prototyping machines gave them a way to grow their fleet easily and cost-effectively.
On each robot is a little mast or tower with an over-sized bar code of sorts on it. I asked about that and learned it was one of the more important aspects to their success. Similar in design to a QR Code, it is a marker to help the robots identify each other and calibrate for a larger situational awareness. They know where each other are and thus have more data on their location.
Congratulations to all the faculty and students at U of M for winning where it counts: On the floor. Yes, it was fun to see a solid win on the basketball court, but it was even more fun walking home with robots swarming around our feet.
For the more serious matters happening in military zones around the world, robots will help soldiers come home safely where we all share in the freedom to play carefree on winter days from sea to shining sea. Let it snow!