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NSF funds research to improve effectiveness of swarm robots

November 30, 2020

Humans react and respond to non-verbal cues, such as when a person looks up others around will look up, too. Understanding these kinds of non-verbal cues could be the key to making robots more useful to humans. Researchers at NIU’s College of Engineering and Engineering Technology are working to make swarms of robots more effective in helping humans with tasks that are hazardous, too labor-intensive or time consuming for humans to do alone, thanks to a grant of more than $138,000 from the National Science Foundation. One application of their work could help scientists identify and control invasive species in the Great Lakes.

Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Sachit Butail, Ph.D. is the principal investigator on the research that is exploring the way robots interact with humans and vice versa, to improve two-way communication between humans and robots. With an understanding of human nonverbal cues, for example, a robot assistant might be able to tell if a human is struggling with a task and needs help.

Butail and his team have applied mathematical tools from the field of information theory to quantify behavior in a wide variety of systems including fish and robots and children and robots. They will advance the same tools to analyze data collected from an electroencephalogram (EEG) that detects brain activity and an eye-tracking device that captures gaze as humans interact with robots. These data and methods will highlight what nonverbal cues make autonomous robots more effective in working with a human and will open new ways for humans to easily control a large number of robots.

“Professor Butail’s research can be applied to help with so many real-world problems, we are so very proud of the work he has done already to assist the EPA’s work to control invasive species in the Great Lakes,” said Donald Peterson, Ph.D. dean of the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology.

Butail believes that this research could be helpful to the Environmental Protection Agency that currently uses underwater cameras in Lake Michigan to survey deep regions for aquatic invasive species; a lengthy, time-consuming task requiring many researchers. A swarm of robots, on the other hand, can cover a greater area in a shorter amount of time, providing scientists with data needed to monitor and control the spread of invasive species.

The award money will fund the hiring of a graduate researcher, two summer undergraduate researchers and the purchase of an EEG and eye-tracking device.

For more information about CEET visit niu.edu/ceet.