By sea, air, or land, the biggest advances in self-driving technology won’t be confined to cars, and they won’t happen on wide-open highways. In the Multidisciplinary Hall of Engineering and Science on the northern edge of the Indiana University Bloomington campus, IU Vehicle Autonomy and Intelligence Laboratoryor VAIL, is charting the future of unmanned vehicles with a small fleet of miniature boats, copters and wheeled vehicles that use artificial intelligence to navigate uncertain terrain — rough waters, cloudy skies and rugged forest floors — without GPS guidance systems.
Led by Lantao LiuAssociate Professor of Intelligent Systems Engineering IU Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and EngineeringVAIL researchers are pushing the boundaries of autonomous technology. Like their vehicles, they navigate new lands without a map.
“We’re not interested in self-driving cars,” Liu said. “There are many companies that are already working with this technology. We are interested in another challenge – off-road autonomy; It’s about building systems that efficiently and accurately navigate a data-free environment. This requires developing new algorithms that can learn and adapt, and that is a challenge. It’s a really big challenge.”
But great challenges offer great rewards. Liu said the applications for vehicles that can fly in complex, unknown environments are vast, including search and rescue; explore extreme environments such as the ocean floor and outer space; and monitor hazardous environments or weather conditions.
“We’re not looking to replace things that people are already doing,” Liu said. “We aim to push the boundaries of what is possible. Autonomous vehicles can perform tasks that humans cannot perform due to physical or safety limitations, such as entering small, remote or dangerous spaces.
He added that there is also the possibility of freeing up time from routine tasks that require high mental effort without much personal benefit, such as driving long distances.
“Autonomous technology is truly transformative in many areas,” said Durgakant Pushpa, Ph.D. student who joined Liu’s lab in 2021. “Robotics with AI can revolutionize transportation, healthcare, manufacturing and many other industries, making processes more efficient and safer.
“From self-driving cars to healthcare diagnostics, robotics and artificial intelligence promise to improve our daily lives and solve complex global challenges. Seeing the evolution of these technologies and their continued integration into society is exciting and motivating.
Among Liu’s lab’s many projects is a partnership with Naval Surface Warfare Activity, Crane Division, naval base in southern Indiana to train autonomous watercraft to image the surface of the ocean floor with remote sensors. Another project, supported in part by a grant from Amazon, is testing autonomous water vehicles with sensors that can detect pollutants, such as agricultural runoff, in local lakes and rivers. These pollutants, most common in rural areas, can cause catastrophic algal blooms that kill plants and wildlife. Autonomous remote water sensors could alert local authorities before these substances reach dangerous levels, Liu said.
In addition to water vehicles, Liu’s lab is developing technologies to overcome rough surface terrain and darkened skies. Applications of these technologies include sending commando robots into tight spaces for inspection and repair. For example, Liu said, NASA used an autonomous vehicle called the Skycrane. Land the Perseverance rover on the surface of Mars in 2021.
To test their technology, Pushp and other VAIL student researchers often go to local forests, woodlands, farm fields and rural roads to test ground robots of various sizes and speeds for a variety of autonomous tasks, including perception, navigation, control and communication. They also send prototype devices to explore waterways, reservoirs and lakes near the Bloomington campus, such as Lake Griffy and Lake Monroe, and drones over forests and farms for environmental and agricultural purposes.
Although the test vehicles are small, the artificial intelligence technology they use to maneuver smartly is essentially the same whether it’s used to power a small drone, a large submarine or a high-end space rover, Liu said.
“You need a lot of complicated math and algorithms to make it work, but the unifying concept is very simple: It’s autonomy,” Liu said. “Vehicles may differ in shape, design or capabilities, but they all share the same basic technology.
As for student interest, Liu said VAIL currently has more than a dozen Ph.D. and undergraduate students, with some projects attracting over 100 applicants. Pushp gravitated to VAIL out of a desire to acquire the skills needed to work in one of the world’s top emerging technology fields, he said.
“My ultimate goal is to work as a scientist at a top robotics research organization,” Pushpa said. “With what I’m learning at IU, I plan to work on exciting projects that will further improve autonomous driving and artificial intelligence technologies. This could mean making self-driving cars safer, improving other autonomous technologies, or solving other big real-world problems.
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