Eight undergraduate students, mostly from the Appalachian region, will come to West Virginia University each of the next three summers to conduct state-of-the-art robotics research, thanks to a more than $287,000 award from the National Science Foundation.
Under the direction of Yu Gu, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, the Research Experiences for Undergraduates site will provide training, mentorship and support to undergraduate students so that they can become independent researchers. Joining Gu on the project as mentors are Powsiri Klinkhachorn, professor of computer science and electrical engineering, and Assistant Professor Jason Gross and Associate Professor Guilherme Pereira from mechanical and aerospace engineering.
“The project will follow the spirit of swarm intelligence: encouraging frequent interactions among a diverse group of undergraduate students to achieve something that might not otherwise be achievable by the individuals alone,” said Gu. “This will allow them to transition from passive learners to independent thinkers of the future. The effort in turn will contribute to the growth of a high-quality and diverse U.S. scientific workforce in the important area of robotics.”
The focus of the project is to allow one human operator to effectively manage a large robot swarm to achieve desired global objectives. Tailored around a swarm system inspired by the cooperative thermal soaring and foraging behaviors of hawks, three sub-projects will be conducted by students during the project.
After the development of a swarm testing environment with 50 custom designed robots, distributed, non-hierarchical agent-level interaction rules that will allow the emergence of desirable robot swarm behaviors will be investigated. Novel human-swarm interaction modes for managing a large self-organized robot swarm without using a direct command and control structure between the operator and robots will be invented and experimentally demonstrated.
“Through these efforts, the students will have the opportunity to work as a team in performing both fundamental research and hands-on experiments,” Gu said. “The successful completion of the project will enable many potential robot applications such as search and rescue, environmental monitoring and robotic mining and construction.”
In preparation for the project, Gu and his team conducted a pilot project funded by the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources in summer 2018 with regional community colleges and primarily undergraduate institutions. According to Gu, this allowed the team to begin to establish a set of regional recruiting contacts in the area of robotics and to open dialogues with these institutions regarding their plans to propose an NSF REU site.
The team is hoping to conduct recruitment and outreach events to a set of target schools, which include Fairmont State University, Waynesburg University, Robert Morris University and West Virginia Wesleyan College.
Interested applicants will be required to submit statements of interest, relevant extracurricular activities and faculty recommendation letters. The applicant review panel, which includes faculty and select graduate students, will also conduct a short interview with the help of a telepresence robot to gauge applicant’s strengths, weaknesses and their fit to the program.