U of M Lab in pursuit of robotics ‘killer app’

by Peter Beacom


By Peter Beacom

University of Minnesota College of Science and EngineeringI stopped by The Robotic Sensor Networks Lab (RSN Lab) at the University of Minnesota (CS) last week to learn more about their research into the intersection of wireless sensing technologies and robotics.  Fascinating!

With a focus on algorithmic and systems aspects of Robotic Sensor Networks (RSN), The Lab is led by Dr. Volkan Isler who enjoys the cycle of deploying robots into the field, returning to “the office” to solve challenges that arise, and repeat. Broadly speaking, an RSN is a network of devices equipped with sensing, communication and actuation capabilities. With a focus on science rather than profits, the RSN Lab is able to pursue projects with extended timelines (try that with your bootstrapped startup).

University of Minnesota Robotic Sensor Networks Lab

One recent experiment in the fusing of robotics and sensor networks was conducted in collaboration with the Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology to monitor invasive carp equipped with surgically implanted radio transmitters in a Minnesota lake. The problem was that deploying radio receivers capable of covering the entire lake would have been prohibitively expensive because the signals from the carp have a useful range of approximately 40 meters. Having ecologists motor around the lake in a boat with a directional radio antenna is also undesirable. Faced with this challenge the RSN Lab fielded an autonomous boat capable of navigating the lake and collecting data when it passes over carp with radio transmitters.

Clearpath Robotics Husky A100

A second ongoing project involves using mobile robots as data mules for collecting data from wireless devices. To this extent, the lab recently took delivery of a Husky A100 on loan from ClearPath Robotics.  The new robot is a six wheel drive rugged platform that will allow the researchers to conduct experiments in the field during harsh Minnesota winters.

stereoscopic webcam systemIn addition to environmental/mobile data collection, the RSN Lab is at work on a robotic video conferencing system. Their goal is to allow freedom of mobility during a video conference by developing robots that will follow and remain focused on a participant as they move around. These robots are some of the most conspicuous at the RSN Lab. They consist of a tripod holding a stereoscopic webcam system on top of an iRobot Create and share a great deal of their mechanics with the Roomba vacuum cleaning robot. The Roomba was a milestone in commercial robotics as one of the first robots sold to the general public in order to perform useful work, as opposed to the mere amusement of novelty.

As my brief encounter with the RSN Lab comes to its end, Dr. Isler mentions that “Outside of manufacturing, the robotics industry is still looking for its killer app,” whereas he sees the role of the Uof M RSN Lab as delivering proof of concept systems demonstrating — to local entrepreneurs and industry at large — the value and opportunities that robotics can provide.