MOSCOW, Idaho -- Fleets of unmanned autonomous marine vehicles, now in the prototype stage, will one day perform tactics too dangerous or tedious for humans.
Arranged in geometric formation, similar to schools of fish, the fleet could be dispatched to sweep for mines, gather data or conduct surveillance. They will communicate with each other via acoustic modems, radio waves and sensors to coordinate tasks and follow a lead vehicle. The autonomous vehicles will be able to respond to changes in positions and the rigors of extreme environments.
Research and testing on such multiple autonomous vehicles are underway by University of Idaho engineering faculty, supported by $4 million in grants over three years from the Office of Naval Research. Principals are Dean Edwards, Michael Anderson and Richard Wall from UI College of Engineering, who do the testing at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Bayview, Idaho.
At the UI, other autonomous vehicles also have been developed to navigate through forests or on Mar's surface. In the future, groups of small underwater crawlers will glean data in shallow water; and autonomous aircraft will perform surveillance. The technology even could be reduced in size to resemble insects, ultimately interacting with one another to complete reconnaissance missions.
Mathematical solutions, called algorithms, make it possible for these various vehicles to communicate and cooperate, say the researchers who have created a "leader-follower-formation-control algorithm." Using it, the UI engineers can design vehicles to perform autonomous surface tasks, underwater navigation, communication and even aerial tactics.
If any of the vehicles becomes incapacitated or cannot communicate, the others will adjust, reconfigure their formation and complete the mission. Or, a follower vehicle may substitute for the leader. The algorithm may be applied to one-, two- and three-dimensional formations; and because only the leader needs to broadcast its navigational position, there's no limit to the number of vehicles in the formation.
"More sophisticated computer hardware, increasingly smarter software, electronic controls and sensors and miniaturized technology allow us to employ control algorithms in such ways as to take automation to a new plateau," said Edwards, who believes this field will create the biggest changes in society over the next decade.
"Our homes will be controlled by automation, security and intrusion-detection will be increased both for individuals, companies and whole nations. Robotics will manufacture products, and the automobile industry will become increasingly automated. However, the biggest change will be the use of autonomous vehicles for everything from removing combustible materials from forests to mowing yards," portends Edwards.
"We're refining the mathematic 'fuzzy logic,' so that each machine will have its own logic and language and can signal and cooperate on major tasks with each other."
These College of Engineering faculty members work as part of UI's Microelectronics Communications and Research Institute, which develops technology in microelectronics, communications, real-time software and electromagnetics for such industries as avionics, intelligent controls systems and space exploration.
"Autonomous vehicle research is becoming more important for the military to reduce troop exposure to dangers and for intelligence purposes, and eventually in the civil realm to automate industry and reduce costs," said Touraj Assefi, MRCI director.
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