The National Science Foundation (NSF) is investing $1 million in research and development (R&D) to create open-source first responder robots.

Researchers at the University of Michigan are currently testing Digit, a bipedal robot that could partner with humans in fires and disaster areas. Using NSF funding, the researchers are looking to create robots that can navigate in real-time without needing a preexisting map of the terrain they are to traverse.

In a press release, the University of Michigan said the project aims to take bipedal walking robots to “a new level, equipping them to adapt on the fly to treacherous ground, dodge obstacles, or decide whether a given area is safe for walking.” The press release added that the technology could “enable robots to go into areas that are too dangerous for humans, including collapsed buildings and other disaster areas. It could also lead to prosthetics that are more intuitive for their users.”

“I envision a robot that can walk autonomously through the forest here on North Campus and find an object we’ve hidden. That’s what’s needed for robots to be useful in search and rescue, and no robot right now can do it,” said Jessy Grizzle, principal investigator on the project and the Elmer G. Gilbert Distinguished University Professor of Engineering at the University of Michigan.

To achieve their goals, researchers will use a “full-stack robotics” approach, which will integrate new and existing pieces of technology into a single, open-source perception and movement system that can be adapted to robots beyond those used in the project itself.

“What full-stack robotics means is that we’re attacking every layer of the problem at once and integrating them together,” Grizzle said. “Up to now, a lot of roboticists have been solving very specific individual problems. With this project, we aim to integrate what has already been done into a cohesive system, then identify its weak points and develop new technology where necessary to fill in the gaps.”

Given that first responder robots would need to navigate unfamiliar and dangerous terrain, researchers are specifically focused on advancing robotic mapping technologies and finding ways for robots to “develop rich, multidimensional maps based on real-time sensory input so that they can determine the best way to cover a given patch of ground.”

“When we humans go hiking, it’s easy for us to recognize areas that are too difficult or dangerous and stay away,” said Maani Ghaffari Jadidi, an assistant professor of naval architecture and marine engineering. “We want a robot to be able to do something similar by using its perception tools to build a real-time map that looks several steps ahead and includes a measure of walkability. So it will know to stay away from dangerous areas, and it will be able to plan a route that uses its energy efficiently.”

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs