UNT engineers build autonomous robots for space exploration

Monday, June 21, 2010

DENTON (UNT), Texas -- NASA needs new photos of the surface of Mars, so it sends a request to a group of robots stationed on the planet. The robots communicate with each other to select and execute the best strategy to accomplish the task.

A team of engineering researchers at the University of North Texas is working to build a network of wireless sensors that would equip robots with such abilities.

Led by Kamesh Namuduri, an associate professor of electrical engineering, the group is programming robots to communicate with each other, make decisions and retain knowledge obtained by other robots. The research could help NASA collect unprecedented data on the moon, Mars and space.

NASA currently employs rovers to Mars to explore its surface and conduct experiments, but the rovers' movements must be operated by engineers, which is time consuming and costly. Providing robots with autonomy could significantly increase the capabilities of space missions.

The project is being funded by Phase One the NASA Ralph Steckler Space Grant Colonization Research and Technology Development Opportunity. Eighteen universities nationwide received up to $70,000 for the project. Four universities will be chosen to receive up to $250,000 later this year for Phase Two.

The grant aims to support university research and technology development activities that support a sustained human presence in space, increase understanding of the moon's environment and develop basic infrastructure for future space colonies.

UNT researchers work in the Autonomous Systems Laboratory, which opened in 2009 in Discovery Park. Controlled by computers, four multi-colored robots maneuver around a ring, each with a tiny camera placed on it. Researchers will transfer the algorithms they create to larger outdoor robots on a simulated planetary surface. They will eventually be tested on lunar and Mars terrain models at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Sravani Gottipati, a graduate student in electrical engineering who is working with Namuduri on the project, said the robots could eventually be used for applications outside of space. For instance, robots could work with each other to provide nighttime surveillance for a college campus or other large venue.

"Once robots can communicate with each other, there could be many applications," Gottipati said.

Watch a video about the project. >>

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108

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