Gentlemen, Start Your Robots: Smartphones as Guidance Systems

December 2012
Topics: Artificial Intelligence, Sensor Technology, Unmanned Systems
When the government needed a faster and cheaper control system for military robots, MITRE researchers took out their smartphones and turned them into the robotic brains.

Meet Bug Stomper, Foot Crusher, Butterbot, and McBobber. They may have started out as remote-control trucks, but this past spring, a team of MITRE engineers——with the help of Android smart phones——proved that this fleet of trucks might soon influence the future of robotics.

Michael Balazs and Jonathan Rotner——affectionately referred to as "the mad scientists" by their colleagues in MITRE's National Security Engineering Center FFRDC——conceived and lead an initiative known as "Android Control and Sensor System" with funding awarded internally through two MITRE research programs.

As the first step in their research, Balazs and Rotner converted Bug Stomper and the others into automated robotic systems, with onboard Android phones serving as each system's central processing unit. Says Rotner: "We wanted to demonstrate several capabilities—the fact that the phones could control the robotic platform, that they could communicate with one other and share information on the mesh network and dynamically respond to new robots that were put online or taken offline, and that they could gather and share information."

Small, Light, Cost-effective

Balazs and Rotner conceived the Android project when a sponsor asked them to rebuild a robotic system on the verge of obsolescence. As they redesigned and rebuilt the sponsor's robotic system, they saw a way to design a much faster and cheaper control system.

"Currently, you can either buy a control and sensing system off the shelf and do a lot of custom software development to make it work, or you can get a custom-made embedded solution, which is very expensive," says Balazs. "By contrast, Android systems already have a lot of sensors and a great app architecture, all in a small, light, cost-effective package.

"And the openness of the Android OS means that you can make it more secure, but also tweak it as much as you need to. Our sponsor wanted to avoid costly proprietary systems, so we set out to prove that a smart phone could be turned into a robot's brain."

According to Balazs and Rotner, an Android phone can be integrated with almost any digital or analog device a robotic system might need—sensors, communications packages, and control systems that can work with on-board systems such as GPS, accelerometers, and cameras to extend the system's potential capabilities.

"We're using a phone because it's an inexpensive, ubiquitous object that can be used anywhere," says Balazs. "It can be made very secure, and because it's being commercially driven, it's going to get better and cheaper every day."

Robot Rally

This past May, Balazs and Rotner took Bug Stomper and pals on a test drive in the University of Virginia's Scott Stadium before an audience that included sponsors from the Defense Intelligence Agency, MITRE colleagues, and UVA students and faculty. The event took place under the auspices of MITRE's new partnership with the university, which brings staff from McLean and Charlottesville together with expert faculty and talented students (see "STEM Outreach at UVA").

In Scott Stadium, the researchers set loose three of the robots to traverse the athletic field, collecting temperature and irradiance data at regular intervals. (The fourth robot sat on display, where attendees could view its inner workings.) While the robots gathered data, they communicated with one another over ad-hoc WiFi that allowed them to divide up the stadium area and share data for analysis. One robot, using the Android's built-in camera, broadcast live streaming video to onlookers; another transmitted 30-second updates on collected data, displayed via Google Earth.

In addition to showing off the robots' capabilities, the team also wanted the demo to show the lighter side of robotics. In fact, the four robots were named by the children of MITRE employees who attended the 2012 "Take Our Children to Work Day" event. "We didn't discourage personification of the robots," says Rotner. "In fact, we highly encouraged it."

Taking to the Skies

Since the Charlottesville demonstration in May, the team recently set its sights on the wild blue yonder. Their current project involves creating an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), which will also be controlled by an Android phone. One major advancement, say Balazs and Rotner, is that the prototype is being created using 3-D printing.

"3-D printing allows rapid prototyping——for example, if a wing doesn't quite fit, it in can be ready, from design to printing, in a matter of days," Rotner says. "You can link the components and print them as one pre-linked, movable piece, so nothing has to be welded. It's a tremendous advantage."

The new technique also allows easier reconfiguration. Balazs says, "With a modular suite of sensors and platforms, hardware can be quickly mixed and matched to accommodate different needs. We're a ways out from that, but it's the pie-in-the-sky goal."

The inaugural flight of the UAV——which measures five feet in length and sports a six-foot-wingspan——will take place in Colorado Springs this fall. "Android Control and Sensor System" research will continue as a research project through FY2013, testing the limits of both the Android ecosystem and advanced manufacturing.

"This represents good FFRDC work," Balazs says. "If MITRE can build a system like this using components that can be bought inexpensively and easily, it will save the government orders of magnitude more money than using a traditional commercial system." Adds Rotner, "This is also a way of showing the commercial firms where they can go——outlining the options for coordination with government efforts and research labs and showing what the next generation of robotic systems could be."

——by Tricia Bailey

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