University of Pennsylvania researchers to develop teams of robots for U.S. military



Thanks to a five-year, $27 million government grant from a United States Army Research Laboratory program that seeks to advance robotic technology, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania will develop a team of autonomous, specialized and resilient robots for the United States military.

One of the researchers for this project, Electrical and Systems Engineering Chair George Pappas, says that this research is unique because its focus will be on specialized teams of robots, instead of individual robots.

These robots will also be able to learn from one another in unknown environments.

“Imagine you have agents like in soccer when some are stronger, some are taller, some are faster. How do you figure out what’s your unique role given your unique capabilities?” Pappas says in an article with the university’s independent student media organization, the Daily Pennsylvanian.

“I think that’s sort of the unexplored territory as to how do we get robots to learn to collaborate.”

The School of Engineering and Applied Science received the grant and will lead the project. For this project, it will work with the Army Research Laboratory and researchers at five other universities.

According to Electrical and Systems Engineering professor Alejandro Ribeiro, ten robots that have the same capabilities can only do tasks “at ten times the speed or scale of a single robot,” but if each robot has its unique skill, robot teams can perform tasks that each individual robot can’t do on its own. 

“Heterogeneity really is what makes the group more than the sum of its parts,” Ribeiro says.

Researchers say that in order for the robots to work together, they need to create an autonomous network for robots to communicate, and they also need to make sure that the robots are resilient.

As an example, Pappas says that two robots that have never interacted should be able to work together, and in the event that some robots fail or are cyber-attacked, they should still be able to continue to perform tasks as a team.

According to Computer and Information Science professor Camillo Taylor, this research can be applied to more use cases than just with the military, including natural disasters strike and damage city infrastructure, as UAS and aerial or ground-based robots could “automatically deploy themselves to form a communication network” either to perform a task together or work individually.

Pappas adds that projects with teams of specialized robots “can really shape a national direction for robotics research.”

“This is a project that could define the future of distributed intelligence and heterogeneous robots and resilient robots not just for Penn or the partners in the project, but actually for the nation,” Pappas says.