Underwater robots to plan missions autonomously

Underwater robots to plan missions autonomously

MIT engineers have developed new algorithms that give underwater robots more 'cognitive' capabilities, allowing them to perform high-level decision-making to carry out missions autonomously.

When deploying autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), much of an engineer's time is spent writing scripts, or low-level commands, in order to direct a robot to carry out a mission plan.

Now a new programming approach developed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) engineers enables humans to specify high-level goals, while a robot performs high-level decision-making to figure out how to achieve these goals.

For example, an engineer may give a robot a list of goal locations to explore, along with any time constraints, as well as physical directions, such as staying a certain distance above the seafloor.

Using the system devised by the MIT team, the robot can then plan out a mission, choosing which locations to explore, in what order, within a given timeframe. If an unforeseen event prevents the robot from completing a task, it can choose to drop that task, or reconfigure the hardware to recover from a failure, on the fly.

In March, the team tested the autonomous mission-planning system during a research cruise off the western coast of Australia. Over three weeks, the MIT engineers, along with groups from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Australian Center for Field Robotics, the University of Rhode Island, and elsewhere, tested several classes of AUVs, and their ability to work cooperatively to map the ocean environment.

The MIT researchers tested their system on an autonomous underwater glider, and demonstrated that the robot was able to operate safely among a number of other autonomous vehicles, while receiving higher-level commands.

The glider, using the system, was able to adapt its mission plan to avoid getting in the way of other vehicles, while still achieving its most important scientific objectives.
If another vehicle was taking longer than expected to explore a particular area, the glider, using the MIT system, would reshuffle its priorities, and choose to stay in its current location longer, in order to avoid potential collisions.

"We wanted to show that these vehicles could plan their own missions, and execute, adapt, and re-plan them alone, without human support," said Brian Williams, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, and principal developer of the mission-planning system.

"With this system, we were showing we could safely zigzag all the way around the reef, like an obstacle course," he said.

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