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UNT Insider | August 2010 Issue | UNT engineers build autonomous robots for NASA space exploration

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UNT engineers build autonomous robots for NASA space exploration

From a UNT News Service press release


NASA needs new photos of the surface of Mars, so it sends a request to a group of robots stationed on the planet. The robots communicate with each other to select and execute the best strategy to accomplish the task.

A team of UNT engineering researchers is working to build a network of wireless sensors that would equip robots with such abilities. UNT was one of only 18 universities to receive funding from NASA for the first phase of the project.

Led by Kamesh Namuduri, associate professor of electrical engineering, the group is programming robots to communicate with each other, make decisions and retain knowledge obtained by other robots. The research could help NASA collect unprecedented data on Mars, the moon and space.

NASA currently employs rovers to Mars to explore its surface and conduct experiments, but the rovers' movements must be operated by engineers, which is time-consuming and costly. Providing robots with autonomy could significantly increase the capabilities of space missions.

The project is being funded by Phase One of the NASA Ralph Steckler Space Grant Colonization Research and Technology Development Opportunity. Eighteen universities nationwide received up to $70,000 each for the project. Four universities will be chosen to receive up to $250,000 each later this year for Phase Two.

The grant aims to support university research and technology development activities that support a sustained human presence in space, increase understanding of the moon's environment and develop basic infrastructure for future space colonies.

UNT researchers work in the Autonomous Systems Laboratory, which opened in 2009 in Discovery Park, UNT's nearly 290-acre research park. Controlled by computers, four multicolored robots maneuver around a ring, each with a tiny camera placed on it. Researchers will transfer the algorithms they create to larger outdoor robots on a simulated planetary surface. They will eventually be tested on lunar and Mars terrain models at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Sravani Gottipati, a graduate student in electrical engineering who is working with Namuduri on the project, says the robots could eventually be used for applications outside of space. For instance, robots could work with each other to provide nighttime surveillance for a college campus or other large venue.

"Once robots can communicate with each other, there could be many applications," Gottipati says.

Watch a video about the project. >>

Sarah Bahari with UNT News Service can be reached at sarah.bahari@unt.edu

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August 2010

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