UNO teams working to give robots minds of their own -
Published Saturday, August 4, 2012 at 1:00 am / Updated at 11:15 am
UNO teams working to give robots minds of their own

Click here to see a graphic of how the swarming robots work.

Learn more about the Mars rover landing.

Get more information about Raj Dasgupta's robotics research.

Find out about UNO's summer robotics workshops for junior high and high school students.

* * *

As NASA prepares for the Sunday landing of its most sophisticated Mars rover yet, University of Nebraska researchers are working on the next generation of robots that could go even deeper into space.

Someday some distant asteroid or faraway moon could be explored by self-reconfiguring robots — think Transformers — such as those being developed by a University of Nebraska at Omaha computer science professor, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln engineering professor and their two teams of researchers.

“What we're doing is changing the paradigm to adapt to environments we don't know as much about,” said Carl Nelson, the UNL engineering professor. “We're not designing to replace the robots NASA's already building. This is a different system, with different capabilities that could expand upon the vision for space exploration.”

The Nebraska research comes in an area of study that has the potential to transform space exploration in coming decades, said Dimitri Zarzhitsky, a robotics software specialist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, where the Mars rover was designed and built.

“We're all very excited about this,” he said.

To be sure, the $2.5 billion Mars rover, named Curiosity, is one awe-inspiring piece of equipment. NASA informational materials describe it as carrying “the most advanced payload of scientific gear ever used on Mars' surface. ... Its assignment: Investigate whether conditions have been favorable for microbial life and for preserving clues in the rocks about possible past life.”

“It is a mind-blowing machine,” said Michael Watkins, a mission project engineer who also is at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The 2,000-pound rover was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., in November and is scheduled to land Sunday evening on Mars.

In comparison, the experimental robots of UNO computer science professor Raj Dasgupta seem almost rudimentary. Some are no bigger than hockey pucks; others are about the size of a milk crate. They look more like Roomba robotic vacuum cleaners than C-3PO or R2-D2 of “Star Wars” fame.

In fact, Dasgupta buys robots off the shelf.

“We buy robots, we don't build robots,” Dasgupta said while giving a tour of his laboratory at UNO's Peter Kiewit Institute. “We're interested in computer science — in putting the brains on the robots.”

Artificial intelligence is Dasgupta's area of specialty. On the UNO faculty since 2001, he became intrigued by robots in 2004. He obtained a $100,000 grant from the Department of Defense's Naval Air Systems Command to explore the possibilities of using multiple robots, moving in coordination, to detect land mines in war zones.

Dasgupta reasons that a swarming team of robots might do a better job of finding mines than a single robot, despite the sophistication of its equipment.

His work on COMRADES, the mine-detecting robots, continues at UNO under a $1.3 million grant awarded by the Office of Naval Research.

Last year he and Nelson landed a NASA grant for their $1.1 million ModRED project. To put it briefly, Dasgupta's team is working on the robot's brain and Nelson's team is developing its physique.

Both Curiosity and the ModRED robots are machines with autonomy — that is, they “think” for themselves as conditions dictate. Distance makes a remote control device unworkable.

The rover Curiosity is fed an upload of instructions each Martian day, taking into account factors such as safety, power reserves and communication availability. A ModRED robot's programming would allow it to respond in a more adaptive way to unforeseen situations.

Plutonium-powered Curiosity may travel more than 12 miles as it makes its way to the middle of Mars' Gale Crater and climbs Mount Sharp, the informal name for a three-mile-high mountain at the crater's center.

It will sample layers of rock during the course of a Martian year — 687 Earth days — and analyze them in a self-contained laboratory. It will transmit video back to an Earth-based team of 350 international scientists.

Zarzhitsky said the Nebraska research and that of other scientists exploring similar concepts could be a game changer.

Instead of a single car-size machine equipped with an array of tools, a handful of small modular robots could be dispersed over an extraterrestrial body.

The data gathered by each would be combined and shared. The robots could assemble and reassemble themselves to form tools and solve problems. They might join into a self-made bridge to cross a ridge or a ravine; they might form an inchworm configuration to move over rough terrain; they could link into a wheel to roll across the landscape. They might even stack themselves into a crane to receive deliveries from space.

The specialties of the 10 members on Dasgupta's research team, who range from undergraduate students to post-doctoral researchers, give a glimpse of the complexity of programming robots to make decisions.

Undergraduate Brad Woosley, for example, works on the algorithms for robot motion planning. Postdoctoral researcher Jihyun Yoon works on systems using global positioning satellites to allow the robots to know their location. Doctoral student Janyl Jumadinova is writing her dissertation on “fusing,” developing a method to combine data from multiple sensors on different machines into a cohesive whole.

Jose Baca, who earned his doctoral degree at a university in Spain and moved to Omaha to join Dasgupta's team, helps program the various motions of the Transformer-like robots.

Dasgupta says it likely will be 2018 before the ongoing research is completed, and there's a decision from NASA and the Department of Defense on the next steps.

Nelson said to stay tuned for more Nebraska robots.

“We are going to grow this project,” he said. “Modular robots and the space exploration robotics will continue as a theme in our lab.”

This report includes material from the Los Angeles Times.

Contact the writer:

Click to see a larger version of the graphic.

Contact the writer: Leslie Reed    |   402-473-9581    |  

Leslie covers higher education issues and events affecting Nebraska college students and their families.

Read more related stories
Last day of 2014 Legislature: Praise, passage of a last few bills and more on mountain lions
'The war is not over,' Chambers says, but legislative session about is
A recap of what got done — and what didn't — in the 2014 legislative session
PAC funded by Senate candidate Ben Sasse's great-uncle releases Shane Osborn attack ad
Teen killed at Gallagher Park was shot in head as he sat in SUV, friend who was wounded says
When judge asks, Nikko Jenkins says ‘I killed them’
New UNO center strengthens ties between campus, community
Threat found in Millard West bathroom deemed 'not credible'
New public employee pay data: Douglas, Lancaster, Sarpy Counties, plus utilities
Nebrasks health officials to advertise jobs via drive-thru
Coral Walker named Omaha police officer of the year
Sarah Palin, Mike Lee coming to Nebraska for Ben Sasse rally
Prescription drug drop-off is April 26
Database: How much did Medicare pay your doctor?
Rather than doing $250K in repairs, owner who lives in lot behind 94-year-old house in Dundee razes it
NB 30th Street lane closed
State Patrol, Omaha police conduct vehicle inspections
Bernie Kanger formally promoted to Omaha fire chief
U.S. House incumbents have deeper pockets than their challengers
Nancy's Almanac, April 17, 2014: Trees save money
Ex-Iowan behind landmark free speech case recounts story in Bellevue
Gov. Heineman signs water bill; sponsor calls it 'landmark legislation'
Senate candidate Shane Osborn to include anti-tax activist Norquist in telephone town hall
Kelly: New $24M UNO center embodies spirit of newlywed crash victim
High school slam poets don't just recite verses, 'they leave their hearts beating on the stage'
< >
Kelly: Creighton's McDermotts put good faces on an Omaha tradition
A comical roast Wednesday night in Omaha brought fans of Creighton basketball laughter by the bucketful. This time it was McJokes, not McBuckets, that entertained the Bluejay crowd.
Breaking Brad: At least my kid never got stuck inside a claw machine
We need a new rule in Lincoln. If your kid is discovered inside the claw machine at a bowling alley, you are forever barred from being nominated for "Mother of the Year."
Breaking Brad: How many MECA board members can we put in a luxury suite?
As a stunt at the Blue Man Group show, MECA board members are going to see how many people they can stuff into one luxury suite.
Kelly: New $24M UNO center embodies spirit of newlywed crash victim
Jessica Lutton Bedient was killed by a drunken driver at age 26 in 2010. Thursday, the widowed husband and other family members will gather with others at the University of Nebraska at Omaha to dedicate a permanent memorial to Jessica.
Breaking Brad: How much would you pay for a corn dog?
The Arizona Diamondbacks have a new concession item: a $25 corn dog. For that kind of money, it should be stuffed with Bitcoin.
Deadline Deal thumbnail
Dr. Welbes Natural Health Clinic
$129 for 2 LipoLaser Sessions with Additional Complimentary Services ($605 value)
Buy Now
< >
Omaha World-Herald Contests
Enter for a chance to win great prizes.
OWH Store: Buy photos, books and articles
Buy photos, books and articles
Travel Snaps Photo
Going on Vacation? Take the Omaha World-Herald with you and you could the next Travel Snaps winner.
Click here to donate to Goodfellows
The 2011 Goodfellows fund drive provided holiday meals to nearly 5,000 families and their children, and raised more than $500,000 to help families in crisis year round.
Want to get World-Herald stories sent directly to your home or work computer? Sign up for's News Alerts and you will receive e-mails with the day's top stories.
Can't find what you need? Click here for site map »