The robot was created in the lab.
Around the robot, computer monitors glow with lines of software code. Red and black wires are stuffed in a box, tendrils splayed like tiny octopi. Green circuit boards emblazoned with the Flying WV are stacked on a table awaiting electronic components that will form the robot’s “brain.” Wisps of smoke rise from soldering tools. Bright green battery packs are lined up as if soldiers waiting for their charge.
Large, but unassuming, the aluminum-clad robot’s plain appearance belies its true capabilities.
The robot thinks and acts entirely on its own.
Named after a desert ant known for its ability to journey across great distances and reliably return home, this robot is an autonomous mechanical being built and programmed by West Virginia University students.
“Over the past decade, computers have come a long way, but that technology doesn’t come close to human function,” said Powsiri Klinkhachorn, professor in the Lane Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering in the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources. “Humans can learn by example or by training while growing up, but basic functions that are obvious to us have to be taught to robots.”
A small child knows how to lift a cup, but for a robot to perform the same operation it must be taught to recognize the cup and how to interact with it. It requires exact instructions to be a certain distance from the cup, how to make precise movements and how to grab the cup with the correct amount of pressure.
“Robots have been taught to complete tasks in factories for many decades now,” said Yu Gu, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and the leader of the WVU team that built Cataglyphis. “Now robots are starting to move out of the factories into daily life to provide services for humans. Some are hiding in plain sight, like smartphones — which do a lot of work for you — but there will be more robots in various forms and functions showing up in our everyday lives.”
Cataglyphis is more than a factory robot. It’s autonomous, so it has to adapt to unpredictable surroundings and decide how to reach its goal.
WVU’s team built Cataglyphis to compete in NASA’s Sample Return Robot Challenge,
part of the agency’s Centennial Challenge initiative to engage the public in
the development of advanced technologies. According to NASA, the program will
“generate revolutionary solutions to problems of interest to NASA
the nation,” such as exploratory missions to Mars.
The challenges are open to anyone — from universities to private citizens — because NASA is keen to learn from novel approaches that are developed for these competitions.
The WVU team is making their robot. But the question remains. Will a robot with a mind of its own have what it takes to win?
A BEAUTIFUL NASA FRIENDSHIP
Let’s rewind. To get to Cataglyphis, we needed a succession of WVU lunar rovers. And in doing that, we had the help of WVU’s astronaut.
“Robotics is the wave of the future. It is affecting every walk of life,” said Capt. Jon McBride, a retired NASA astronaut and former WVU engineering student. “The more we can get students interested in working on these technologies, the more opportunities they’ll have to be part of this growing field.”
In 2011, McBride, a Beckley native, led the robotics competitions at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. There teams worked to create guided mining robots that could traverse simulated lunar terrain, dig soil and return it to a collection bin.
He believed WVU would be a great fit for the competition and encouraged the University to participate.
“West Virginia is a mining state, and WVU has engineering talent equal to that of institutions with more well-known robotics legacies,” McBride said.
He worked closely with Klinkhachorn over the years to grow WVU’s robotics programs and to expose undergraduate and graduate students to careers in advanced technology.
“Robotics is the wave of the future. The more we can get students interested in working on these technologies, the more opportunities they'll have to be part of this growing field.” — CAPT. JON MCBRIDE
Klinkhachorn leads WVU’s Lunabotics team, which builds human-assisted planetary
rovers. He has also been instrumental in getting the team that made Cataglyphis
off the ground.
“The leadership of Statler College, from Dean Gene Cilento to Dr. Klinkhachorn,
has been so supportive of its outstanding engineering students, and I’m proud
of everything the teams have achieved,” McBride said. “I believe this is the
start of a long tradition of excellence in robotics
Under Klinkhachorn’s leadership, for the past several years the Lunabotics team has been a regular on the medal stand at NASA’s Robotic Mining Competitions after being pitted against dozens of universities from around the world.
Building off of that early success, the Lunabotics team constructed another rover for the Revolutionary Aeronautics Systems Concepts-Academic Linkage competition, known as the RASC-AL Robo-ops Challenge at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
In this challenge, the rover, tasked with collecting “samples” or painted prize rocks, was in Houston while the student operating it was in Morgantown. The real-life application of the competition is to minimize environmental risks to astronauts on planetary missions.
The Mountaineers were the first team to ever complete Level 2 of NASA's Sample Return Robot Challenge. Their rover, Cataglyphic, was built to be fully autonomous.
“The students have shown an amazing level of dedication to their work. They sometimes spend an extra 80 hours a week just trying to see what they can get done.” — POWSIRI KLINKHACHORN
Every year RASC-AL Robo-ops selects eight teams to compete from dozens of entries. WVU has been selected every year that it entered the competition. Last year, the team’s robot took first place, and this year second place with rover MMR15, beating the likes of MIT and Virginia Tech.
The robot might do the heavy lifting on the competition field, but Klinkhachorn says the students are the real workhorses, analyzing areas that failed or could be improved, fabricating and machining parts, and building the necessary platforms.
“They have shown an amazing level of dedication to their work,” he said. “They live and die in the lab, sometimes spending an extra 80 hours a week there just trying to see what they can get done.”
Additionally, as part of the education and public outreach components of the competition, the team gave more than 600 hours of community service and interacted with more than 4,000 students.
WVU’s team includes students from aerospace, mechanical, electrical and systems engineering as well as computer and industrial science.
“I am impressed with the WVU teams, particularly because of their level of teamwork and responsibility, which is an underlying premise at NASA,” McBride said.
WHERE SPACE MEETS ROBOTS
It seems like humans have always had a fascination with robots. In literature and film, robots have been imagined as heroes, villains, aliens and friends. In 1951, the film “The Day the Earth Stood Still” introduced the world to Gort, a nine-foot tall alien bodyguard armed with a vaporizing laser beam.
Not long after that, in 1965, the first close-up pictures of Mars were transmitted to Earth from the Mariner 4 spacecraft. Since then NASA scientists have been working to uncover the mysteries of our planetary neighbor.
It has clouds, polar ice caps, canyons, mountains and volcanoes — and water. This fall the water debate ended when NASA confirmed through the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that liquid water flows on the surface. But scientists have yet to discover if there ever was — or is — life on Mars.
Underneath the planet’s pink sky, NASA’s Curiosity rover is sending new information about Mars to the agency’s scientists nearly every day while collecting and analyzing samples to answer this question.
Since it landed, Curiosity has led to a demand for technology and people who can respond to space science’s biggest challenges, like the 15 WVU alumni on the Curiosity team. It’s becoming more likely every year that these future engineers will be from WVU.
Cataglyphis is now fully formed. Its mission is to navigate, avoid obstacles and collect geologic samples across a varied 20-acre terrain and return them to a designated zone within two hours.
The robot took months of collaboration, fabrication, hardware design, software and electrical design, computer vision, navigation, mission planning and testing. Lots of testing.
The WVU team machined parts. They perfected the precision grabber to ensure that it can pick up a variety of unknown samples on different types of terrains. They wrote the software that taught the robot to “think” and “see.” Then they taught it to navigate without using a global positioning system or magnetic compass.
They planned their mission to accomplish goals within the limited time allowed.
The team spent weeks testing the robot on sunny days, cloudy days, cold days, rainy days — on rough terrain and smooth.
Rover MMR15 beat out MIT and Virginia Tech in this year's RASC-AL Robo-ops competition. NASA has used WVU's Team Lunabotics rover as a model of how to continuously imporove on robot design.
“We went through a cycle of testing, failing, correcting and retesting,” said Lisa Kogan, a master’s student in mechanical engineering. “We had to ensure that the systems were robust enough to withstand whatever was thrown at the rover.”
In the end, the team united mechanical systems, electrical systems and software design into a rover that operates free of humans.
RED ROCK OR BUST
On a sunny day in Massachusetts this June, Cataglyphis sits on a grassy field.
Only one of two robots to complete the first level of the challenge and move on to the second, the rover patiently waits for its moment to prove its skill.
As the time starts, the robot’s six wheels roll off the starting platform and across the hilly terrain. Its laser scanner nods up and down, searching for obstacles. Its camera pivots on the central mast as it searches for the first sample.
The rover’s first objective is to find the required pre-cache sample from level one. Cataglyphis finds the object, a piece of white plastic the size of a soup can with a large hook attached to one end. The robot lowers its arm to deploy the grabber. The clear box lands gently over the object and closes from the bottom to scoop it inside.
As the WVU team cheers from the viewing platform, the robot calmly continues its mission, unfazed by the din of the crowd. It navigates to the drop-off point and deposits the object at home base.
Next the rover scours the field for another sample. It stops, rotates its camera, takes pictures of its surroundings and detects whether another sample is nearby.
As time continues, the rover locates the red-rock sample and returns it to home base, earning the WVU team a $100,000 prize and making them the first team to secure a level-two victory in the competition’s four-year history. (Their winnings support the team’s activities and went toward a new Robotics Achievement Scholarship.)
Eighteen months from day one, WVU students and Cataglyphis have won. And they’ve won more than the prize.
NO PLACE TO GO BUT UP
WVU’s recent successes in robotics have not gone unnoticed. Later in the summer, NASA administrators invited Gu and his team to visit NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., home of the robotic exploration of the solar system.
There scientists introduced the team to the Curiosity rover’s twin, a duplicate of the car-sized robot that is navigating the surface of Mars 140 million miles away.
They also visited the facility’s outdoor rock yard, a simulated Martian landscape used to test robotic prototypes.
“This was a great experience for our students,” Gu said. “They are solving the same types of problems as JPL engineers, just on a smaller scale. It showed them that the skills and pressure associated with that type of mission are similar to what they experience.”
Cataglyphis isn’t traveling through interstellar space and isn’t a walking humanoid that becomes your friend or fights your enemies, but the robot — our robot — embodies the human quest for creativity and discovery.
Even sitting in the corner of that lab, Cataglyphis is helping WVU students explore newfound places, especially inside themselves.