A methodical voice tells the watching crowd, “I am going to remove the lid.” Everyone is quiet as a robot using artificial intelligence (AI) opens a trash can and lifts out a bag. Students and researchers hold their breath as it navigates across the floor of a mock house, avoiding obstacles to its destination. “Mission accomplished,” it says. The trash has been taken out and the audience applauds. This is a huge achievement for the robot designed by a Texas Robotics team for the 2019 RoboCup competition.
It may seem like a lot of fanfare for a basic chore, but it is a complicated task for a machine. The robot demonstrated autonomy and communication skills in a changing environment, key interests for artificial intelligence experts right now and the U.S. military. Related research could help future service robots go beyond taking out the trash to assisting and performing dangerous tasks — keeping soldiers out of harm’s way.
That is why The University of Texas at Austin is proudly partnering with the Army Futures Command, a new four-star command that is transforming Army modernization. Together, they are putting useful research into practice on the battlefield more quickly. The partnership is a commitment to identify and further early research and development that has the ability to transition rapidly, getting new technology quickly to the hands of those who need it.
“The challenges are huge,” says Justin Hart, assistant director of Texas Robotics and an assistant professor of practice with the Department of Computer Science involved in research with the Army Futures Command. Hart is an expert on semantic mapping, autonomous human-robot interaction, and artificial intelligence for service robots. Multi-tasking autonomous AI robots are the holy grail of his field. “We are doing fundamental research that has the ability to be applied to solve problems. We want to ensure there is a pipeline that makes that research available in a usable format.”
The goal is for the robots to always be on and dealing with whatever comes their way. That is a grand challenge for robotics.”
The computing and engineering challenges have vast game-changing potential for how robots could be deployed in several areas. Texas Robotics, a robust consortium of interdisciplinary researchers led by the College of Natural Sciences and Cockrell School of Engineering, is working to advance the field. Texas Robotics’ collaborative projects explore robotics’ numerous application spaces including social, surgical, rehabilitation, vehicles, drilling, manufacturing, space, nuclear and defense.
Peter Stone, director of Texas Robotics, principal investigator for UT Austin’s robotics research with the Army Futures Command and prominent AI expert on machine learning and dynamic environments, says the university is focusing on two major growth areas. The first is long-term autonomy, the ability for robots to operate self-sufficiently for hours or days rather than seconds or minutes. The second is human-robot interaction that includes autonomous robots that are interacting with people in an unstructured environment. This requires the robot to have the ability to respond to and communicate with humans whether in a health care setting, on the street or during a mission.
“The goal is for the robots to always be on and dealing with whatever comes their way,” says Stone. “That is a grand challenge for robotics.”
Centralizing these efforts makes UT Austin an attractive full-service robotics group for industry and government partners, Stone says. “Over the past five or six years, we have banded together and formed an interdisciplinary group that has an educational component and that has an industry affiliates program. We can explore a lot of synergies across a lot of different perspectives.”
Historically, getting new technologies to the soldiers has been a slow process. The Army Futures Command’s mission is to modernize and speed up that process and “Forge the Future.” In 2018, the Army selected Austin, Texas, as the headquarters for the command after considering cities across the country. The city stood out as an ideal location because of its combination of high-tech and science-related industries, the state government, and the academic reach of UT Austin.
“UT’s location in the technological hub that is Austin, our status of having a top-five-ranked program in AI and our leadership on a brand new artificial intelligence institute funded by the National Science Foundation help show that our friends in the military selected its robotics research partner wisely in picking UT,” says Paul Goldbart, dean of the College of Natural Sciences.
“Innovation has been happening in the government and in leading research universities for decades,” says Sharon L. Wood, dean of the Cockrell School of Engineering. “But now that we’re working together to address specific challenges, we can expand our resources and accelerate the speed at which we roll out new technologies. This is a win-win for both UT Austin and the U.S. Army.”
Today, UT Austin remains fully committed to discovery and advancing the research that could help the world. A keystone project in the Army Futures Command partnership is the newly renovated Anna Hiss Gymnasium, the centralized home for Texas Robotics.