'Empowering' tiny reconnissance robots the goal of IT research project

September 10, 2002

Blacksburg, Va., Sept 10, 2002 -- Imagine tiny robots snaking their way through collapsed buildings or coal mines on search and rescue missions, receiving instructions and transmitting vital image data about the location of humans trapped in rubble or mine shafts.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a $300,000 Information Technology Research (ITR) grant to Amy Bell, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Virginia Tech, for development of technology that could make such scenarios a reality.

Robots that use wireless communications devices to receive and transmit data already exist. "In fact," Bell noted, "Robin Murphy, a University of South Florida professor, used reconnaissance robots in confined, hazardous locations at the World Trade Center site after September 11 to transmit data to rescue workers."

However, size is a problem for mobile agents on reconnaissance missions because the transmission of images requires a hefty power source. "Small robots that can make their way into cramped spaces have to be tethered to power sources in order to receive and send data transmissions, and the tethers limit their range," she said. "Larger robots can carry their own battery packs, but they can't maneuver in small spaces."

An expert in signal processing, Bell began working on ways to compress images when she received a NSF Faculty Early Career Development Program grant in 1999. "For example, downloading an Internet site that contains several photographs can take a good deal of time," she explained. "But suppose, instead of sending the graphics in their original form--let's say 300 megabytes that might take ten minutes to download--we could compress those images into 10 megabytes that would download in only one-third of a minute and the compressed images would look the same as the originals."

Bell's goal for the NSF ITR project is to compress images in ways that will significantly reduce the power required for small, mobile agents to transmit images in wireless networks. She is working on the project with Joan Carletta, an electrical engineering professor at the University of Akron whose field is computer hardware.

"We've already developed a novel idea that represents a first step toward implementing our goal," Bell said. "It's a method of transforming images in hardware that loses very little of the data's original quality." Bell will develop algorithms, or mathematical procedures, for perfecting the data image compression and Carletta will devise a method for making those algorithms work in hardware.

If the researchers succeed, data transmission power requirements could be reduced so that small robots outfitted with small batteries would be able to move freely where no human can--or should--go.

But the success of Bell's and Carletta's NSF project could result in technology advances beyond the use of diminutive robots for search and rescue. For example, soldiers who need to transmit and receive data during field operations could be relieved of the burden of heavy battery packs, Bell said. Another potential use of the technology would be equipping "micro-air" vehicles--small reconnaissance aircraft--with image transmission devices.
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Virginia Tech

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