Scientists to develop small-scale mobile robotic devices

A multidisciplinary team of computer scientists, engineers, and biologists at Harvard received a $10 million National Science Foundation (NSF) Expeditions in Computing grant to fund the development of small-scale mobile robotic devices. Inspired by the biology of a bee and the insect’s hive behavior, the researchers aim to push advances in miniature robotics and the design of compact high-energy power sources; spur innovations in ultra-low-power computing and electronic “smart” sensors; and refine coordination algorithms to manage multiple, independent machines.

Harvard is one of three lead institutions receiving the latest round of awards under the NSF’s Expeditions in Computing program. The program, established last year by the Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE), provides the CISE research and education community with the opportunity to pursue ambitious, fundamental research agendas that promise to define the future of computing and information and render great benefit to society. Funded at levels up to $2,000,000 per year for five years, Expeditions represent some of the largest single investments currently made by the directorate.

“Nature has bred astonishing solutions to complex real world challenges,” says Principal Investigator Robert Wood, Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and a core faculty member of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard (Wyss). “This research aims to understand the biology of bees and use this understanding to advance multiple topics in computer science and engineering.”

Wood and his collaborators envision that the Nature-inspired research could lead to a greater understanding of how to artificially mimic the collective behavior and “intelligence” of a bee colony; foster novel methods for designing and building an electronic surrogate nervous system able to deftly sense and adapt to changing environments; and advance work on small-scale flying mechanical devices.

More broadly, the scientists anticipate that the devices will open up a wide range of discoveries and practical innovations, advancing fields ranging from entomology and developmental biology to amorphous computing and electrical engineering. Through a relationship with the Museum of Science, Boston, the team will also create an interactive exhibit to teach and inspire future scientists and engineers.

“We put this proposal together with particular emphasis on collaboration to bind research on what we call ‘body, brain, and colony’ together as a single unified effort. This will allow us to uncover tradeoffs and optimizations that would otherwise be difficult if treated as individual projects,” adds Co-Principal Investigator Gu-Yeon Wei, Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering at SEAS.

From flies to fish to lobsters, small insects and animals have long been ideal models for roboticists and computer scientists. Bees, for example, possess unmatched elegance in flight, zipping from flower to flower with ease and hovering stably with heavy payloads.

By leveraging existing breakthroughs from Professor Wood’s Microrobotics Lab, which conducted the first successful flight of a life-sized robotic fly in 2007, the team will explore ways to emulate such aerobatic feats in their proposed devices. In addition, achieving autonomous flight will require compact high-energy power sources and associated electronics, integrated seamlessly into the ‘body’ of the machine.

One of the most complicated areas of exploration the scientists will undertake will be the creation of a suite of artificial “smart” sensors, akin to a bee’s eyes and antennae. Professor Wei explains that the ultimate aim is to design dynamic hardware and software that serves as the device’s ‘brain,’ controlling and monitoring flight, sensing objects such as fellow devices and other objects, and coordinating simple decision-making. Finally, to mimic the sophisticated behavior of a real colony of insects will involve the development of sophisticated coordination algorithms, communications methods (i.e., the ability for individual machines to ‘talk’ to one another and the hive), and global-to-local programming tools to simulate the ways groups of real bees rely upon one another to scout, forage, and plan.

“We expect our efforts will drive research in disciplines ranging from neurobiology to computer science to microelectronics to robotics,” says Wood. Specifically, the five-year project could lead to technological advances in robust bio-inspired computer systems (coordinating complex behavior from multiple independent parts), “smart” materials, and novel, miniature power sources for a variety of devices.

“A top down and bottom up investigation of a complex, beautiful, and imminently practical device and system defines what it means to be a 21st century research university. It is inspiring to see such expertise all coming together around fundamental science and engineering,” says Provost Steven E. Hyman.

The investigators, primarily based at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, will coordinate efforts with faculty from the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard and Northeastern University’s Department of Biology. In addition, Centeye, a microelectronics firm in Washington, D.C., specializing in vision chip and visual sensor technology, will contribute technical knowledge.

A number of the collaborators are core faculty members of the newly created Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. As the work fits particularly well with Wyss’s mission of “creating new materials and devices using Nature’s design principles,” the Institute, along with SEAS, will play a critical role in supporting the research, providing laboratory space and in-kind financial support.

“Using Nature’s own cleverness as a starting point for scientific investigation has long proven to be a powerful way to make advances. This is such cool research, as the practical, technological aspects of the project dovetail with deep fundamental issues in computer science, robotics, biology, and engineering,” says Cherry A. Murray, Dean, Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and John A. and Elizabeth S. Armstrong Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “I commend the NSF for funding work that will advance multiple fields and surely captivate students and expose them to the wonders of exploration.”

A News from Harvard Science , 12 August 2009

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