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Within the next decade, travelers checking into hotels might hand their luggage to robot bellhops. Drivers riding down a street might see human construction foremen managing groups of robots laying bricks or pouring building foundations.
This is the future Tomonari Furukawa, robotics researcher, Zinn Faculty Scholar and new professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Virginia, is bringing closer to reality.
Furukawa leads a 14-person robotics team of University of Virginia School of Engineering and Virginia Tech students selected to compete in one of the world’s most prestigious robotics competitions, the Mohamed Bin Zayed International Robotics Challenge 2020 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Feb. 23-25. Furukawa’s is one of only four teams selected from the United States and one of 30 teams worldwide.
Other U.S. finalists include Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pennsylvania and the Georgia Institute of Technology, as well as other leading robotics universities such as the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, the University of Bonn in Germany, the University of Tokyo and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.
The UVA Engineering-Virginia Tech team, named Team VICTOR (VIrginia Cooperative of auTOnomous Robots), will enter two types of autonomous robots in the competition, several unmanned aerial vehicles and an unmanned ground vehicle. Prize and sponsorship funds for the competition total $5 million.
Ultimately, Furukawa and his student team hope to create robots that can work alongside humans.
Right now, robots work effectively in the manufacturing industry, but they can’t determine if their actions are putting a human in danger, so robots must work in separate environments away from human workers. “Getting from today to a future when robots are providing so many services will require engineers to make much more sophisticated robots,” Furukawa said.
“I can also see robots helping with problems that would be hazardous for humans, like fixing the Fukushima power plant in my home country of Japan,” he said. “Or, robots could build structures in no-oxygen settings like the moon or the International Space Station or someday even Mars.”
Ironically, in order to make robots smart enough and safe enough to be with humans, robots need to be programmed and designed so well that they can act independently without humans.
The team’s aim is to make robots self-regulating and autonomous by developing devices like sensors that can detect position, temperature, pressure and force, actuators that can move the robot and all its parts with precision, and operating system software to regulate of all of these things.
The robotics competition in Abu Dhabi is clearly focused on advancing robotics automation. All of the event challenges require that the teams’ vehicles work as independently as possible—teams will be penalized for human intervention.
The design of the tournament events indicate the level of sophisticated research that Furukawa and his students have been doing: a ground vehicle and an aerial vehicle must coordinate to find a fire in a building and then extinguishing it; an aerial drone must target a ball hanging from a moving target, another aerial drone; and a ground vehicle and an aerial vehicle must work together to pick up randomly placed bricks with different lengths and make an L-shaped wall.
“The finalists represent top internationally-renowned academic and research institutions with well-established robotics labs and we believe Mohamed Bin Zayed International Robotics Challenge 2020 will showcase the creative best in robotics,” said Dr. Arif Sultan Al Hammadi, Executive Vice-President, Khalifa University of Science and Technology, event organizer and Team VICTOR sponsor.