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UD's Rasmussen wins NSF Career Award

Christopher Rasmussen, UD assistant professor of computer and information sciences

4:42 p.m., May 18, 2006--The University of Delaware's Christopher Rasmussen, an assistant professor of computer and information sciences who is conducting groundbreaking research in computer vision and mobile robotics, has been presented the National Science Foundation's prestigious Faculty Early Career Development Award.

The five-year, $500,000 award will support Rasmussen's work in the development of algorithms that will enable robots to find and follow difficult trails in even the most rugged terrain.

The award is one of the National Science Foundation's highest honors for young faculty members, and it recognizes and supports the early career activities of those teachers and scholars who are most likely to become the academic leaders of the future.

Rasmussen is one of five young UD faculty members to have received the award this year, joining Xinyan Deng, assistant professor of mechanical engineering; Joseph Fox, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry; Balaji Panchapakesan, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Neal Zondlo, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry.

“I feel very good about receiving the award,” Rasmussen said, “but I'm most excited to just get started on the work I proposed."

Rasmussen will use the NSF grant to study autonomous and assistive trail following. He will investigate perceptual algorithms which could help mobile robots find and follow trails, as well as be embedded in portable devices to mitigate visual impairments or augment human tracking skills for search-and-rescue tasks, for example.

His primary area of research has been in computer vision for field robotics, or providing “sight” for robots in outdoor environments. “There is a great divide between robots that roll down hallways delivering mail and robots that have to bounce around in the dirt,” Rasmussen, himself a hiking enthusiast, said. The germ of his NSF proposal came from his experience as an adviser to a team from the California Institute of Technology in the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) Grand Challenge desert robot races in 2004 and 2005. His contribution was a software component for “road following,” or working out how to get a vehicle to drive itself along rough dirt and gravel roads.

Roads are one example of a more general class of paths which "show the way" across a landscape to robots and people who can recognize them and "ease the way" for those who follow them, Rasmussen said. These two functions place paths along a spectrum of distinctiveness, or how easy is it to see where to go next in a gross sense, and traversability, or how easy is it to actually negotiate a path that could be strewn with rocks or logs.

Rasmussen with ‘Alice,’ a driverless, computer-controlled van
“A path like a road is engineered for high distinctiveness and traversability," he said. "I'm interested in a more difficult subset of paths, which I call trails, that are hard to see or follow. They may not even have been created purposefully, for example, people or animals walking along and leaving footprints or other signs."

A successful trail-following system, or scout, would be able to differentiate diverse kinds of trails from their surroundings regardless of time of day, weather or season. It must accurately estimate the curvature of the trail, and decide whether it forks or dead-ends, Rasmussen said. The scout must also be able to recognize when it has wandered off the trail and have some method for getting back on track.

Rasmussen added that another aspect of the problem is to deduce the proper "line" within the trail for a rolling or walking robot to take "so it doesn't slip, roll over, or fall into a hole." Dynamical issues are compounded by higher speeds and differing surface materials, such as sand versus mud versus rock. One approach he plans to study is for the scout to observe humans as they follow trails in order to learn how they negotiate obstacles like rocks and low-hanging branches and then imitate them.

Rasmussen said that a robust robotic scouting system would have a wide array of potential uses including logistics, such as the resupply of remote camps, trail maintenance, wildlife study and reconnaissance for border patrol or military scenarios.

While the major focus of the work is in robotics, Rasmussen said an important possible application is assistive. “A scout system that can follow difficult trails on its own might be able to serve as a guide for visually-impaired people. Another example is expert human trackers who find and follow footprints for search-and-rescue or wildlife biology. What if the scout system could be carried by a nonexpert and give them similar abilities?" Developing such capabilities will entail collaborations with researchers in wearable computing and human interfaces including haptics, which is the technology that pertains to the sense of touch.

Rasmussen said he became interested in artificial intelligence while an undergraduate at Harvard University. His doctoral adviser at Yale steered him toward computer vision as a specialty, and he began to work on field robotics problems while doing postdoctoral research at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. He joined the UD faculty in 2002.

“I'm fascinated by the quest to get computers to behave like people, to exhibit human-level intelligence at various tasks,” Rasmussen said. “To me, robots are the ultimate demonstration of artificial intelligence because they have to sense, plan and act over and over. When a robot is moving correctly and doing its thing, you get a feeling of wonderment watching it, like you've created something living."

Rasmussen said that “exciting things are happening in this area right now,” mentioning that DARPA is gearing up for another Grand Challenge in 2007, this time in an urban setting. “Out in the field is the frontier for robots," he said. "You've got to leave the lab to tackle the most challenging problems." He feels fortunate as well that this research will allow him to combine his love of programming and being outdoors.

Article by Neil Thomas
Office photo by Kathy F. Atkinson

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