Prestigious German Fellowship Won by UIUC Professor Researching Multiple-Vehicle Coordination
When a hiker is lost in difficult terrain, a family's car becomes trapped off-road in deep snow, or a natural disaster strikes, how do rescuers begin to search for the victims? With increasing frequency, robots and other unmanned vehicles are playing a role, especially where conditions would put human rescuers in danger. Professor Dusan Stipanovic of the Information Trust Institute (ITI), the Department of Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering, and the Coordinated Science Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has been working for years to advance the technologies that make such rescues possible. In recognition of his work, Germany's Alexander von Humboldt Foundation has just awarded him a fellowship that will allow him to develop his work further in collaboration with scholars in Germany.
Stipanovic is an expert in the control and coordination of the motion of trustworthy systems composed of multiple dynamic agents -- that is, objects capable of moving on their own. Such agents have been used for a wide variety of applications, ranging from collection of climate data to the cleaning of airport runways, and inventive new uses are continually being found. For example, an Italian archeological organization, Roma Sotterranea, has recently begun using robots to explore ancient, subterranean ruins beneath Rome, where collapsed structures and dangerous flooding make human exploration risky or impossible. In a much more serious context, robots were used to search for survivors of the World Trade Center disaster in 2001 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
"When a human is trapped somewhere, the rescue process can be much more effective if you have multiple ground or aerial vehicles available to do surveillance," Stipanovic explains. "You can use them to locate where a person is, and then follow up by sending a human team directly to the particular spot where the person is lost."
However, the usefulness of such unmanned vehicles has been limited by the complex technical challenges involved in controlling them, especially in the context of unpredictable real-world environments. For example, in 2005 an unmanned "DART" spacecraft that NASA sent to rendezvous with a communications satellite actually lost control and crashed into the satellite. Investigators later concluded that the collision occurred because the DART vehicle's control systems had not been able to make accurate assessments of a variety of factors, including its position relative to the target satellite and its own level of fuel consumption.
Much of Prof. Stipanovic's work has dealt with such safety aspects, focusing on ensuring that vehicles do not collide with obstacles or with each other; in particular, he concentrates on the problem of ensuring collision avoidance in situations where information passing between vehicles must be assumed to be inaccurate. Most recently, as one of the principal investigators on a collision avoidance project within ITI's Boeing Trusted Software Center, he has worked specifically on the challenges presented by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
The Humboldt Research Fellowship that Stipanovic has received will allow him to work for the next three summers at the University of Wuerzberg in Germany, where his host, Prof. Klaus Schilling, maintains an advanced testbed for multiple ground vehicles and is developing a testbed for UAVs. The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, which is a nonprofit foundation founded by the German government in 1953, awards fellowships in order to bring outstanding scholars to Germany for collaboration. Stipanovic intends to use this opportunity to develop more realistic models of the trustworthy interaction of components in multi-agent systems, and to develop numerical algorithms that will make such systems more reliable and usable in real-life scenarios.
Stipanovic enjoys hearing about the creative uses that are being found for unmanned vehicle formations, but their use in search and rescue operations is closest to his heart. "By taking the place of human rescuers, they give us the luxury of not having to worry about the humans," he says. "If my work is going to save one rescuer's life, I like it."
About the Information Trust Institute (ITI)
The Information Trust Institute is a multidisciplinary cross-campus research unit housed in the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It is an international leader combining research and education with industrial outreach in trustworthy and secure information systems. ITI brings together over 90 faculty, many senior and graduate student researchers, and industry partners to conduct foundational and applied research to enable the creation of critical applications and cyber infrastructures. In doing so, ITI is creating computer systems, software, and networks that society can depend on to be trustworthy, that is, secure, dependable (reliable and available), correct, safe, private, and survivable. Instead of concentrating on narrow and focused technical solutions, ITI aims to create a new paradigm for designing trustworthy systems from the ground up and validating systems that are intended to be trustworthy. www.iti.illinois.edu
Contact: Molly M. Tracy, Associate Director, Information Trust Institute, 217/333-3437, mollyt AT iti.uiuc.edu.
Writer: Jenny Applequist, Information Trust Institute, 217/244-8920, applequi AT iti.uiuc.edu.
Released March 4, 2008
A printable PDF version of this press release is available.