On a sunny summer day in 2000, Camillo Jose Taylor and several of his students visited a U.S. Army training site in Fort Benning, Georgia. Soon after they arrived, three helicopters suddenly appeared above, and soldiers started to rappel down to the ground. Then they heard gunfire and became enveloped by plumes of smoke from simulated grenades that landed nearby. In the midst of the mayhem, the students remained focused on their one mission: to program a team of robots to diligently collect data about the scene. “It was not the usual environment for successful programming, but the students performed very well,” says Taylor, professor in Computer and Information Science (CIS) at Penn.
The training operation illustrates one way that robots may be used in the future, according to Taylor’s grand vision. By assembling themselves into communication networks, teams of robots can relay messages to one another to optimally position themselves for efficient data collection in dangerous places. “It’s hard for individual robots to understand everything about the surrounding scene. But when they form social networks or swarms and start gossiping with each other, they can develop a better understanding of the environment to solve complicated problems,” Taylor says.
As a member of Penn’s General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Laboratory, Taylor has set his sights on making robots smarter…
Ultimately, Taylor envisions combining these approaches with virtual reality technology to allow users to visualize and edit complex 3D shapes and environments. This kind of technology could be used to speed the design of complex shapes such as dental molds or medical implants, which could be sculpted in a virtual environment and then manufactured on a 3D printer. “With the current generation of systems, it’s very tough to visualize what’s happening in 3D,” Taylor reports. “In the long run, we hope to produce systems that are a lot more intuitive and simpler to use.”