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November 2011 - AIRobots Invited Session at the 50th IEEE CDC-ECC


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Summary

The goal of the AIRobots project is to develop a new generation of aerial service robots capable to support human beings in all those activities which require the ability to interact actively and safely with environments not constrained on ground but, indeed, freely in air. The step forward with respect to the "classical" field of aerial robotics is to realize aerial vehicles able to accomplish a large variety of applications, such as inspection of buildings and large infrastructures, sample picking, aerial remote manipulation, etc.

The starting point is an aerial platform whose aeromechanical configuration allows the vehicle to interact with the environment in a non-destructive way and to hover close to operating points. Rotary-wing aerial vehicles with shrouded propellers represent the basic airframes which will be then equipped with appropriate robotic end-effectors and sensors in order to transform the aerial platform into an aerial service robot, a system able to fly and to achieve robotic tasks.

Advanced automatic control algorithms will be conceived to govern the aerial platform which will be remotely supervised by the operator with the use of haptic devices. Particular emphasis will be given to develop advanced human-in-the-loop and autonomous navigation control strategies relying upon a cooperative and adaptive interaction between the on-board automatic control and the remote operator. Force and visual feedback strategies will be investigated in order to transform the aerial platform in a "flying hand" suitable for aerial manipulation.

The vision

A graphical sketch of the vision behind AIRobots is the figure below. The unmanned aerial vehicle, equipped with appropriate sensing devices and end-effectors, is remotely controlled by means of haptic devices which allow the operator to remotely supervise the task. The operator is assumed to be a specialist in the specific application rather than a pilot. In this scenario, integrated design schemes between the remote operator and on-board automatic control will be studied according to schemes which are not fixed a priory but modified according to evolving needs and objective conditions. The vision is to develop a out-and-out "flying hand" of the operator!

Objectives

The project will be devoted to the development of aerial service robots whose basic technologies can be adapted with minimal efforts to support human beings in a wide array of applications which require the ability to interact with environments which are otherwise un-accessible by ground robots. To prove the viability of the concept, the specific end-user AIR applications will be addressed and prototypes of aerial service robots able to meet the end-user expectations will be developed.

More specifically the final objective of the project is to develop two aerial prototypes (according to the two airframe design principles illustrated above) and to prove their effectiveness in mock-up environments specifically designed in order to capture the key features of the end-user selected scenarios. The development of the aerial platforms will require the fulfillment of a number of objectives which have been fixed in order to develop a "general purpose" aerial robot potentially adaptable to a number of applicative scenarios. Specifically, the most important objectives to be reached in the project are the following.

1. Aerial service robotics best practice and performance measures. The first goal is to define a series of performance measures both for general aerial service robotic applications and for the robotic inspections scenarios of interest for the end-user. In this respect the system has to be designed to be robust, flexible, adaptable, portable, safe, intelligent, effective and economic in achieving the desired operations.

2. System design and control strategies for aerial robots physically interacting with the human world. The design of the entire system addressing the interaction with the environment represents one of the main contributions of this project to the field of aerial robotics and control systems design. The service robotics explicitly requires the ability to interact with the environment in terms of contact between the aircraft and objects, e.g. docking and un-docking operations required to put sensors in contact with the object to be inspected, takeoff and landing, etc. This feature requires the design of innovative robust control strategies.

3. New contribution to human-robot interaction and communication. One of the objectives is to develop an advanced human-robot interface for the purpose of endowing the system with advanced action capabilities. This will be achieved by employing the state of the art in term of virtual reality and sensing technology (such as augmented reality and haptic devices) in order to allow the operator to guide the robot in the actions to be achieved by hiding the complexity of the vehicle dynamics. Ideally the aerial service robot represents a "flying hand" that allows the human to act as if she were directly on the site, allowing a level of interaction between the human and the environment that has never been reached before in the field of aerial robotics.

4. Aerial navigation in loosely structured and densely cluttered environments. One of the main effort of the project consists into designing a framework to allow the robot to safely operate in loosely structured and possibly densely cluttered environments. In fact during the inspection of the desired infrastructure the robot is required to fly in an environment which is uncertain and only partially structured because, usually, no reliable layouts and drawings of the surroundings are available. To support these features, advanced cognitive capabilities are required, and in particular the role played by vision is of paramount importance.







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