Teaching robots teamwork

Apurva Joshi, a research scholar with the IITB-Monash Research Academy quite often finds himself resorting to illeism—where one refers to himself in the third person instead of the first person. Recruits in the military often do this, referring to themselves as "the recruit"—in order to reduce the sense of individuality and enforce the idea of the group being more important than the self.

Apurva’s PhD project is loosely based on the philosophy of illeism—he seeks to study how robots can subsume their individual identities and work together towards a common goal. The project is titled, ‘Coordination and Control of Unmanned Aerial and Ground Vehicle Groups’, and Apurva’s supervisors are Dr Debraj Chakraborty and Dr Hoam Chung.

The IITB-Monash Research Academy was established in 2008, and is an important collaboration between Australia and India. It offers graduate research scholars like Apurva the opportunity to study for a dually-badged PhD from both IIT Bombay in India and Monash University in Australia, spending time in both countries over the course of their research.

Apart from various laboratories around the world, Unmanned Aerial and Ground Vehicles are now being used in military and civilian applications including surveillance, reconnaissance, search and rescue, and remote warfare. However, even today, these operations require intensive human supervision and cannot be performed by robots independently. The situation becomes even more complicated when groups of UAV/UGVs are involved.

‘Cooperation’ among robots (technically referred to as ‘agents’) is the key to accomplishing a common task. Apurva hopes to come up with algorithms that enable these agents to sense their surroundings, communicate with other agents in the group, and take decisions in order to perform the given task. “In my case,” he explains, “the agents are unmanned ground and aerial vehicles that perform tasks like formation flying, driving as a platoon or rendezvousing (meeting at an agreed time and place). With control algorithms, we’d like these to agents perform these tasks without human intervention.”

So what motivated Apurva to take up this project?

“Over the years, robots have got better at doing several tasks by themselves. The next (seemingly) natural question to ask was, ‘Can they do better as a team?’ We see so many examples of group work in nature—ants, bees and wasps that collectively gather food and function effectively as colonies, flocks of birds that fly in formation to migrate long distances, and the shoaling behaviour of fish to protect themselves against predators. We’d like to mimic this ‘culture of cooperation’ among robots.”

Dr Murali Sastry, CEO, IITB-Monash Research Academy finds Apurva’s project fascinating. “The potential is tremendous—applications could range from surveillance, reconnaissance, search and rescue, and remote warfare to automated highway systems, formation flight control, satellite clustering, mapping of unknown or partially known environments, and distributed manipulation,” he reveals.

In his research so far, Apurva and his team have directed a group of drones to reach a mutually chosen common point by making them sense their surroundings and allowing them to communicate with their neighbours. To accomplish this, each drone had to take control decisions independently using on-board microcontrollers.

“It has been a wonderful experience so far because my work lets me do two things: cook up control laws, in theory, that would solve a problem and then actually, physically make it happen,” he smiles.

When he is not engineering, Apurva finds himself connecting dots, finding patterns, and, of course, resorting to illeism!

Research scholar: Apurva Joshi, IITB-Monash Research Academy

Project title: Coordination and Control of Unmanned Aerial and Ground Vehicle (UAV/UGV) Groups

Supervisors: Dr Debraj Chakraborty (IIT Bombay), Dr Hoam Chung (Monash University)

Contact details: apurvajoshi@iitb.ac.in

This story was written by Mr Krishna Warrier based on inputs from the research student, his supervisors and IITB-Monash Research Academy. Copyright IITB-Monash Research Academy.