The University of Texas at Dallas

Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science


Researchers Build Networked Autonomous Systems Through International Collaboration

Researchers Build Networked Autonomous Systems Through International Collaboration

Sleiman Safaoui, Dr. Tyler Summers, Benjamin Gravell BS'19

Left to right: Sleiman Safaoui, Dr. Tyler Summers, Benjamin Gravell BS’19

Dr. Tyler Summers, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at The University of Texas at Dallas, recently won a three-year grant with support from the United States and Australia to develop algorithms and system architectures to coordinate networked autonomous multi-robot teams, or multiple systems of robots that communicate.

Summers, a professor in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science, studies control, optimization and learning in large-scale networks. This work develops fundamental control theory for large systems that encompass both high-level strategic thinking and lower-level component systems that are typically managed by automation or artificial intelligence. He refers to such an approach as co-design.

“Co-design involves tightly integrating high-level planning and perception with low level control algorithms,” Summers said.

“For example, in an autonomous vehicle, there are uncertainties inherent in the way sensors like cameras perceive the environment that are essentially ignored for path planning and lower level control, which can cause serious safety problems. Combining these processes into a tightly integrated framework would allow us to use all the data more safely and efficiently.”

Summers’ team at UT Dallas will work on developing control methodologies that explicitly account for the presence of inherent uncertainties and adversarial agents. In other words, they will work on understanding and mitigating all the ways in which the co-design system can fail or be disrupted, whether due to physical barriers, weather changes or even malicious attacks. The theory can then be applied to a variety of cyber-physical systems, from unmanned aircraft teams to electric power grids, where humans are making the high-level decisions.

The research may be proven, in part, because of the resources available through the newly opened Engineering and Computer Science West building.

Robot Drones

Summers and his team will use multiple systems of robot drones to test and validate the control research.

“A lot of our project is building theoretical foundations, but the testing in the lab helps us validate the research and account for uncertainties,” Summers said. “We have a new drone lab in a high bay – with over 100 aerial and mobile ground robotic platforms – where we can test many different scenarios. We have a 24-camera motion capture system we received with support from the provost, which allows access to ground truth positions. In other words, we can determine a robot’s actual exact position and evaluate the performance of the algorithms. We can also connect to various simulators to create highly complex operating environments for the robots.”

The project’s roots extend back to Summers’ experience as a Fulbright scholar during his PhD program. Summers met Dr. Iman Shames, now a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne, Australia, while studying at The Australian National University. They later reconnected while they completed postdoctoral fellowships in Europe. Summers studied at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, Switzerland, while Shames studied at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden.

“We just kept in touch over the years and this collaboration is basically the result of a relationship that started when I went down there to research and study,” Summers said.

Summers and Shames will not merely Skype to share details, however. They are planning student exchanges as well as international trips throughout the process. Summers highlights his own experience as a Fulbright scholar as an example of the benefits of face-to-face international collaboration.

“Scientific research and progress connect people together,” Summers said. “Many crucial problems cut across national boundaries – they’re not country-specific. One of the themes of the Fulbright is that it’s just as important to engage in cultural exchange – have different experiences and perspectives from visiting different countries – as it is to study. The experience of travel enriches you and promotes mutual understanding.”

The research collaboration may lead to additional opportunities for UT Dallas and for students who will build lifetime research connections, as Summers did while completing his PhD.

“This project can raise the profile of UT Dallas internationally in part because of the student exchange,” Summers said. “It’s good to have visiting scholars to see what we’re about while sending our students to Australia.”

The research is funded by the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research’s Asian Office of Aerospace Research and Development in Tokyo and the University of Melbourne through the Defence Science and Technology Group in Australia.