NSF CISE Information Theoretic Navigation

Part of this project was in collaboration with NASA JPL MAARS: Machine learning-based Analytics for Rover Systems.

Imagine you are a food writer for a magazine, sent to a city for a day to discover and report on local cuisine. You have three meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) over which to gather information and maximize your visit to create the clearest impression for your readers. As you come into town, you have a decision to make. Will you visit familiar, fast food and chain restaurants, or, will you seek out new, undiscovered eateries to paint your culinary picture? Obviously, patronizing unfamiliar restaurants is going to yield new, quality information, helping readers back at home draw sound, comprehensive conclusions about the locale.

Following the same logic, imagine navigating with a Google map. The most direct route has a reputation for heavy traffic which could jeopardize timely arrival. A slightly longer distance with less traffic might give you a better chance to reach your destination on time. Maximizing information gain by traveling unchartered territory is the goal of Dr. John Park’s research. Park is using autonomous and connected vehicles armed with high-performance onboard computers to traverse unexplored areas. Under strict limitations of time and energy, he is trying to gain and transmit the most data possible from new, dynamic environments.

On the Floor

“We are not vacuuming, it just looks like we want a (very!) clean rug,”

says Park. Five Ph.D. candidates are kneeling on the floor, encircling a test-bed in the middle of Park’s Hines Hall lab. The team has taped-out a grid on low-pile carpet to border a series of two by two-foot squares called “cells”. Crawling over the carpet cells are four iRobot Roomba® vacuums.

While most Consumers purchase these devices in a pre-programmed suction mode, Park acquired them unprogrammed. His team has fitted each Roomba® with two round decks creating tiered towers above each device. The hip, techy, blinking wedding cakes crawl and spin on the floor, learning, updating, clarifying and confirming their environment. “The process by which autonomous vehicles learn about carpet in Hines Hall using is actually quite similar to how we would receive and process data in other, more difficult environments,” explains Park. “Autonomous vehicles allow operators to observe, record, make decisions and even take action in locations where physical human presence is either impossible or undesirable.”

Adorning the Roomba decks are serious technology: ZED Stereo Cameras, RPLIDAR 360-Degree Laser Ranger Scanners, NVIDIA Jetson AGX Xavier High-Performance Computing Units and Cray Supercomputers. Funding for this and other equipment has been provided by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Virginia Department of Transportation, the North Carolina Department of Transportation, the United States Department of Transportation, and most recently a $240,000 three-year grant from the National Science Foundation. This new project is known as IMPACT (Information-theoretic Multiagent Paths for Anticipatory Control of Tasks).

Learn, Update, Clarify, Confirm

Park’s project promotes the scientific and engineering value of intelligent navigation systems by finding the best routes of vehicles with autonomous decision-making based on the desired level of exploration, risk, and energy constraints. The navigation analyzes images (autonomous driving feature detection), selectively collecting data without interrupting their trips.

When an autonomous vehicle travels through Park’s floor grid, information is gained by visiting unclassified or uncertainly classified cells, observing the condition in those cells, and estimating the entropy (degree of disorder or randomness) in other cells. Each vehicle updates its path plan every time it moves to a new cell. By sharing information about the state of the cells it encounters, it helps to define the optimal parameters to be used in other vehicles’ journeys. If a cell is visited by another vehicle and found to be in the same state as the original cell of that type, then all vehicles have confirmation that these cells are correlated. The vehicles gather and confirm data during their journeys, updating Park’s knowledge bank as new information about the terrain is discovered.

Understanding how information can be learned throughout navigation will produce a guide to government planners and transportation engineers, and offer substantial benefits to society in improved choice modeling especially in congested traffic networks when heterogeneous users cause complex situations with weak road resilient networks. Future navigation and autonomous vehicle driving will realize improved efficiency by considering the tradeoffs between energy, time and environmental challenges.

The Team

Dr. Park has staffed his grant with five capable Ph.D. candidates from the Department of Computational Science and Engineering in the College of Engineering. Khadijeh Shirzad, Justice Darko, Yaa Takiwaa Acquaah, Larkin Folsom, and Nigel Pugh are fearless, despite the enormous programming tasks ahead. While they describe this project as “intricate” and “complicated” the team seems clear-minded and process-oriented with how they intend to gather and analyze the robots’ data.

The five students hail from three countries boasting majors in mathematics, physics and computer science, yet all seem to agree on one thing: while computational science and engineering is a complex, multifaceted field, it lives in reality.

“Our studies mimic and therefore benefit real life,”

says Acquaah.

“We use math and computational thinking to analyze data, solve pressing problems, and improve the world.”

written by Kelly S. Morgan

Chancellor Martin recognizes work.

Park & NASA-JPL Education

Finding the best driving route for a Mars rover isn’t as easy as turning on a navigation app – but John Park and Hiro Ono want to make it so. A program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is helping them turn their idea into a reality, all while promoting diversity in STEM.

A tenure-track faculty member at North Carolina A&T State University, Park has spent the past two summers at JPL through an Education Office initiative designed to connect students and researchers from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to the Laboratory’s missions and science. The NASA-backed pilot program has brought more than a dozen student interns and several faculty researchers to JPL for projects investigating Mars, Earth and planets beyond our solar system.

Until his stint at JPL, Park’s research focused solely on Earth-bound transportation technologies, such as those used by self-driving cars. When he learned about JPL’s HBCU initiative from a colleague who had participated in the program, he seized on the chance to apply his research to space exploration.

“My previous projects and publications have dealt with decision-making tools for exploring uncertain areas on Earth and maximizing the information that’s available. I thought I could help bring that perspective to Mars rovers and helicopters.” 

says Park, who also helped connect several students from North Carolina A&T to internship opportunities with the HBCU initiative.

While researching potential applications for his research at JPL, Park learned that the challenges of getting around on Mars are similar to those faced by drivers on Earth. Rovers also need to get from place to place safely and efficiently – they’re just avoiding boulders instead of traffic jams.

It was precisely those challenges that Hiro Ono in JPL’s Robotic Mobility Group also wanted to overcome.

“I had an idea that I wanted to try, and we had all the ingredients. The HBCU program allowed us to try the idea”

says Ono, who designs artificial intelligence systems for future rover missions.

The HBCU initiative brought Park and Ono together along with Larkin Folsom, a student intern from North Carolina A&T. Together, the trio developed a proposal for a future system that would work similarly to the navigation apps we use to get through rush-hour traffic. The system would allow rovers to analyze routes as they drive, providing mission planners with information about the routes most likely to be hazard-free so they can make the most efficient use of the spacecraft’s limited energy supply and maximize the mission’s science goals.

“Previously, the way that we operated on Mars was to make the best guess about drivability solely from looking at orbital images. The idea that we are working on is to introduce the concept of probability. So if there are two terrains that are important to you but one of them is 90% traversable and the other is 60% traversable, which are you going to choose?”

says Ono.

In September, the National Science Foundation awarded Park, who submitted the proposal, with a grant to pursue the project. Park says the funding will go toward a JPL internship opportunity for a Ph.D. student from his university to continue research with Ono’s team.

Jenny Tieu is a STEM education project manager at JPL who manages the HBCU initiative with Roslyn Soto. She helped connect Park and Ono and says it’s collaborations like these that the initiative was designed to foster.

“Our goal with this initiative is to expand the number of HBCU students and faculty members participating in research at JPL and ultimately increase diversity among the Laboratory’s workforce. This National Science Foundation award is a positive indication that the initiative is not only building strong relationships between HBCUs and JPL, but also creating a ripple effect for additional opportunities.”

says Tieu.

Now in its fourth year, the HBCU initiative will once again bring students and faculty to JPL for research opportunities in the summer of 2020.

Meanwhile, Park and Ono are exploring ways to expand their technology into other arenas, including hurricane research and emergency response. Park has already received support from the U.S. Department of Transportation as well as the state DOT in Virginia and North Carolina for additional Earth-based applications of the technology.

Ono is serving as a consultant on the projects and has high hopes the results of the research will make its way back to JPL.

Says Ono,

“In the long run, having an intern, giving them a good experience, helping their career is going to come back to us. We, as JPL, can build connections around the world and among industry partners that are going to come back to us eventually.”

NSF Robust Intelligence. Information-theoretic Multiagent Paths for Anticipatory Control of Tasks (IMPACT)

written by Kim Orr

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