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A New Breed of Robots That Drive Themselves


The OmniTread Search and Rescue Robot has been designed to worm its way through debris to look for trapped people.

The unmanned ground vehicle is a new name for a fairly old idea. Most of us have played with radio-controlled toy cars, for instance, or at the other extreme of complexity, have seen the images relayed from Spirit and Opportunity, the rovers that wandered the surface of Mars. But until relatively recently, fully functioning UGVs capable of carrying out complex operations were mostly confined to hobbyists' garages and university research labs.

Today, however, unmanned ground vehicles—robotic ground vehicles capable of operating in a variety of environments and functioning in place of humans—are being used for a variety of commercial and military purposes. UGVs go places where humans cannot, such as hundreds of meters down oil well pipes, and were used extensively to help rescue workers search the rubble of the World Trade Center. At the presidential inauguration in 2009, UGVs were driven underneath buses to check for explosives.

Unmanned ground vehicles of various kinds are used to do a variety of dirty, dull, and dangerous tasks, such as vacuuming a room, harvesting crops, or carrying heavy loads for long distances.

UGVs have also played a larger and more important role in the United States armed forces in recent years, with more than 8,000 currently deployed by the U.S. Army, compared to only a few hundred less than ten years ago. In Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance, various UGVs are used to inspect and disarm potential improvised explosive devices or search caves and buildings. Hundreds of soldiers are without doubt alive today because a UGV found or detonated an IED before they were set off by a person. UGVs are also used for many other tasks, from surveillance to carrying loads for the soldier. In every one of these examples, UGVs were used to accomplish something that would have been extremely inconvenient, dangerous—or impossible—for a human to do.

These kinds of robots are on the brink of becoming an integral part of the everyday world. But to truly become revolutionary, UGVs need a capability beyond locomotion, a suite of sensors, and a manipulator arm. They need to be able to navigate new environments without the guidance of a human operator.

The groundwork for that advance is being laid at the University of Michigan's Ground Robotics Reliability Center and other research labs across the world. The day will soon dawn when fully autonomous UGVs are ready to roll out of the labs and into the mainstream of industrial activity.

To read more about UGVs and specific projects at U-M, view the original ASME article by ME Professors Dawn Tilbury and A. Galip Ulsoy. Tilbury is the director of the Ground Robotics Reliability Center. Ulsoy, an ASME Fellow, is the C.D. Mote Jr. Distinguished University Professor of Mechanical Engineering and the William Clay Ford Professor of Manufacturing at U-M. Ulsoy is also past editor of ASME's Journal of Dynamic Systems, Measurement, and Control.

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