Tanner awarded NSF grant to investigate autonomous robotic systems
Bert Tanner


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8:24 a.m., Dec. 22, 2009----Herbert Tanner, assistant professor in the University of Delaware's Department of Mechanical Engineering, has been awarded $450,000 over three years by the National Science Foundation to develop a framework for a robotic sensor network that can autonomously search for, detect, and identify patterns in large volumes of sensor data.

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“We're trying to make robots more autonomous,” Tanner says. “They have been used quite successfully in industrial settings, where the environment can be carefully structured and controlled. The big challenge now is to enable machines to make decisions on their own and be deployed in environments that are possibly hostile to humans and are characterized by a higher degree of uncertainty -- for example, at contaminated locations, in outer space, and underwater.”

Tanner envisions a mobile sensor network consisting of interconnected autonomous robots that search areas collecting measurements and then identify patterns in the data contained in their measurements. The robots will coordinate into formations that facilitate sensor data collection, distributed storage, and processing.

“The whole group will collectively identify the pattern by running a series of distributed algorithms,” Tanner explains. “They won't have to wait until the whole region of interest is swept -- rather, they will use the concept of mutual information associated with their measurements to prioritize measurement collection and process the sensor data as it flows in. This distributed approach to collecting and processing the information will give the process robustness and guard against measurement noise and failure.”

The work has a broad range of potential applications including planetary exploration, where autonomous rovers identify distinguishing geological features without sending visual data over hundreds of millions of kilometers; in underwater exploration, where underwater vehicles construct maps of the ocean bed and identify features without human intervention; and in nuclear non-proliferation, with robots detecting nuclear material in suspected facilities and reporting on the type of equipment possibly used.

Outreach activities associated with the grant will include undergraduate research and summer programs for secondary school teachers.

Tanner earned his doctorate at the National Technical University of Athens in Greece in 2001. From 2003-2008, he taught at the University of New Mexico, where he had a joint appointment in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. He joined the UD faculty in September 2008.

Article by Diane Kukich