We present a method for solving the coverage problem with the objective of autonomously exploring an unknown environment under mission time constraints. Here, the robot is tasked with planning a path over a horizon such that the accumulated area swept out by its sensor footprint is maximized. Because this problem exhibits a diminishing returns property known as submodularity, we choose to formulate it as a tree-based sequential decision making process. This formulation allows us to evaluate the effects of the robot's actions on future world coverage states, while simultaneously accounting for traversability risk and the dynamic constraints of the robot. To quickly find near-optimal solutions, we propose an effective approximation to the coverage sensor model which adapts to the local environment. Our method was extensively tested across various complex environments and served as the local exploration algorithm for a competing entry in the DARPA Subterranean Challenge.
Robotic exploration of unknown environments is fundamentally a problem of decision making under uncertainty where the robot must account for uncertainty in sensor measurements, localization, action execution, as well as many other factors. For large-scale exploration applications, autonomous systems must overcome the challenges of sequentially deciding which areas of the environment are valuable to explore while safely evaluating the risks associated with obstacles and hazardous terrain. In this work, we propose a risk-aware meta-level decision making framework to balance the tradeoffs associated with local and global exploration. Meta-level decision making builds upon classical hierarchical coverage planners by switching between local and global policies with the overall objective of selecting the policy that is most likely to maximize reward in a stochastic environment. We use information about the environment history, traversability risk, and kinodynamic constraints to reason about the probability of successful policy execution to switch between local and global policies. We have validated our solution in both simulation and on a variety of large-scale real world hardware tests. Our results show that by balancing local and global exploration we are able to significantly explore large-scale environments more efficiently.
Communication is an important capability for multi-robot exploration because (1) inter-robot communication (comms) improves coverage efficiency and (2) robot-to-base comms improves situational awareness. Exploring comms-restricted (e.g., subterranean) environments requires a multi-robot system to tolerate and anticipate intermittent connectivity, and to carefully consider comms requirements, otherwise mission-critical data may be lost. In this paper, we describe and analyze ACHORD (Autonomous & Collaborative High-Bandwidth Operations with Radio Droppables), a multi-layer networking solution which tightly co-designs the network architecture and high-level decision-making for improved comms. ACHORD provides bandwidth prioritization and timely and reliable data transfer despite intermittent connectivity. Furthermore, it exposes low-layer networking metrics to the application layer to enable robots to autonomously monitor, map, and extend the network via droppable radios, as well as restore connectivity to improve collaborative exploration. We evaluate our solution with respect to the comms performance in several challenging underground environments including the DARPA SubT Finals competition environment. Our findings support the use of data stratification and flow control to improve bandwidth-usage.
We present a method for autonomous exploration of large-scale unknown environments under mission time constraints. We start by proposing the Frontloaded Information Gain Orienteering Problem (FIG-OP) -- a generalization of the traditional orienteering problem where the assumption of a reliable environmental model no longer holds. The FIG-OP addresses model uncertainty by frontloading expected information gain through the addition of a greedy incentive, effectively expediting the moment in which new area is uncovered. In order to reason across multi-kilometre environments, we solve FIG-OP over an information-efficient world representation, constructed through the aggregation of information from a topological and metric map. Our method was extensively tested and field-hardened across various complex environments, ranging from subway systems to mines. In comparative simulations, we observe that the FIG-OP solution exhibits improved coverage efficiency over solutions generated by greedy and traditional orienteering-based approaches (i.e. severe and minimal model uncertainty assumptions, respectively).
This paper presents and discusses algorithms, hardware, and software architecture developed by the TEAM CoSTAR (Collaborative SubTerranean Autonomous Robots), competing in the DARPA Subterranean Challenge. Specifically, it presents the techniques utilized within the Tunnel (2019) and Urban (2020) competitions, where CoSTAR achieved 2nd and 1st place, respectively. We also discuss CoSTAR's demonstrations in Martian-analog surface and subsurface (lava tubes) exploration. The paper introduces our autonomy solution, referred to as NeBula (Networked Belief-aware Perceptual Autonomy). NeBula is an uncertainty-aware framework that aims at enabling resilient and modular autonomy solutions by performing reasoning and decision making in the belief space (space of probability distributions over the robot and world states). We discuss various components of the NeBula framework, including: (i) geometric and semantic environment mapping; (ii) a multi-modal positioning system; (iii) traversability analysis and local planning; (iv) global motion planning and exploration behavior; (i) risk-aware mission planning; (vi) networking and decentralized reasoning; and (vii) learning-enabled adaptation. We discuss the performance of NeBula on several robot types (e.g. wheeled, legged, flying), in various environments. We discuss the specific results and lessons learned from fielding this solution in the challenging courses of the DARPA Subterranean Challenge competition.
In order for a robot to explore an unknown environment autonomously, it must account for uncertainty in sensor measurements, hazard assessment, localization, and motion execution. Making decisions for maximal reward in a stochastic setting requires learning values and constructing policies over a belief space, i.e., probability distribution of the robot-world state. Value learning over belief spaces suffer from computational challenges in high-dimensional spaces, such as large spatial environments and long temporal horizons for exploration. At the same time, it should be adaptive and resilient to disturbances at run time in order to ensure the robot's safety, as required in many real-world applications. This work proposes a scalable value learning framework, PLGRIM (Probabilistic Local and Global Reasoning on Information roadMaps), that bridges the gap between (i) local, risk-aware resiliency and (ii) global, reward-seeking mission objectives. By leveraging hierarchical belief space planners with information-rich graph structures, PLGRIM can address large-scale exploration problems while providing locally near-optimal coverage plans. PLGRIM is a step toward enabling belief space planners on physical robots operating in unknown and complex environments. We validate our proposed framework with a high-fidelity dynamic simulation in diverse environments and with physical hardware, Boston Dynamics' Spot robot, in a lava tube.
This paper serves as one of the first efforts to enable large-scale and long-duration autonomy using the Boston Dynamics Spot robot. Motivated by exploring extreme environments, particularly those involved in the DARPA Subterranean Challenge, this paper pushes the boundaries of the state-of-practice in enabling legged robotic systems to accomplish real-world complex missions in relevant scenarios. In particular, we discuss the behaviors and capabilities which emerge from the integration of the autonomy architecture NeBula (Networked Belief-aware Perceptual Autonomy) with next-generation mobility systems. We will discuss the hardware and software challenges, and solutions in mobility, perception, autonomy, and very briefly, wireless networking, as well as lessons learned and future directions. We demonstrate the performance of the proposed solutions on physical systems in real-world scenarios.
Aircraft that can launch ballistically and then convert to autonomous, free flying drones have applications in many areas, such as emergency response, defense, and space exploration, where they can gather critical situational data using onboard sensors. In previous work, we presented a proof of concept, manually stabilized folding multirotor that deploys from a pressurized tube mounted on a vehicle moving at speeds of up to 50 mph. This paper presents a larger, autonomously stabilizing multirotor prototype with an onboard sensor suite, autonomy pipeline, and improved aerodynamic stability margin. We also demonstrate autonomous transition from passive to active stabilization, confirming the ability of the multirotor to autonomously stabilize after a ballistic launch in a GPS denied environment.