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.
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).