7/13/2020 Peter Durantine

Student-Researcher Teaches Robots to Navigate Minefields

In former warzones around the world, mines—the remnants of conflicts past and present—litter the countrysides, particularly in rural farming communities where civilians are frequently killed or maimed tending the land. 

For the last four years, two Franklin & Marshall College professors and their student-researchers have been part of an international group that designed and built prototype robots that could help begin a more rapid pace at removing an estimated 11,000 mines worldwide.

“We think we can speed things up,” said Teaching Professor of Geosciences Tim Bechtel, director of F&M Science Outreach. 

  • As a Hackman Summer Scholar, DiGregorio conducts research on navigating robots around minefield obstacles. “I came to F&M to do research because it’s such a good school for it, and it sounded like perfect things to do, and I was right,” he says. As a Hackman Summer Scholar, DiGregorio conducts research on navigating robots around minefield obstacles. “I came to F&M to do research because it’s such a good school for it, and it sounded like perfect things to do, and I was right,” he says.

Imagine a dozen robots that swarm a minefield to detect and mark mine locations, and do it far faster than soldiers with landmine detectors. NATO funded the first three years of the project, and recently provided another $420,000 grant to the group: scientists from F&M, Italy, Ukraine and Jordan.

“We’re working on a cooperative team of robots so each group will have one,” Bechtel said.  “One of the things we’ll be working on is the communications between the robots, so that’s going to be a bit more physics than earth and environment.”

As a Hackman Summer Scholar, Aaron DiGregorio, a senior physics major, is conducting research on navigating the robot around minefield obstacles with Professor of Physics and Astronomy Fronefield Crawford, the other F&M scientist on the international team.

“We’re teaching it to move without bumping into trees and rocks, and to follow a clear path between mine-to-mine so the others can follow in tandem,” DiGregorio said.

DiGregorio’s collaboration with Crawford started last year and will continue well into the fall.

“What I’ve done so far is test out the feasibility of [the robot] using a metal detector, how well it images landmines, and how well it distinguishes them, and then seeing if combining images will get us a clearer image,” DiGregorio said.

Crawford said the first three years of the NATO program, during which the bread-box-sized robot was built, focused on developing a robot with sensors that could identify mines; this next phase focuses on several robots, each equipped with a certain set of sensors, following each other.

“We have three of these robots now,” Crawford said. “The first robot identifies a target, and the second robot follows in its path, goes to that same spot, and then images the target. The third robot comes along and further analyzes the object with a metal detector.”

Having several sensors examine the same object allows for proper identification of the object as something dangerous or something harmless, like clutter, he said.

“Our task at F&M is to think about how these robots can be controlled in a semi-autonomous way, to follow one another in a particular path laid out with flags,” Crawford said. 

The robots operate on software developed by Clear Path, a robot company, but F&M researchers such as DiGregorio work to program the robots to talk to one another and to talk to a GPS-positioning-like master controller that directs them.

As he considers a master’s degree in engineering, DiGregorio said, “I came to F&M to do research because it’s such a good school for it, and it sounded like perfect things to do, and I was right.”

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