"Effective teamwork doesn't translate easily into electronics, and at disaster sites, it could literally mean the difference between life and death," said NSF program officer Rita Rodriguez.
To help emergency response personnel in the trenches, a team of researchers is writing the playbook to turn a group of robots into a single well-oiled machine. Researchers at the University of Minnesota, the University of Pennsylvania and Caltech are devising software that will create teams of small robots under the command of a human operator.
"There are big challenges due to the size and performance constraints of the robots themselves," said Nikos Papanikolopoulos, director of Minnesota's Distributed Robotics Lab. "But on top of the robots, we have to cope with the constraints of the team. How do you keep it from being total anarchy?"
Sports are also natural examples of teamwork, and the international RoboCup competition has set the lofty goal of creating a robot soccer team by the year 2050 that can beat the world's human champions. In the meantime, Manuela Veloso at Carnegie Mellon University has set her sights on dogs.
Veloso and her students in the multi-robot CORAL Lab at Carnegie Mellon have pursued research to let teams of four-legged robots to make plans, carry them out and score enough goals to win a few robot soccer world championships. Led by Veloso, Carnegie Mellon teams have won several RoboCup league championships over the years. NSF grantee Raffaello D'Andrea has also led Cornell University's small-robot team to several world championships.
"Robot soccer made team problems all the more challenging from a research perspective," said Veloso, a professor of computer science and director of the CORAL Lab. "What drives me is the multi-robot aspect and the adversarial game domain. It's kind of like chess, but with robots."