Some soldiers may soon be taken out of harm’s way on the battlefield as robots designed by a University research team could explore and perform reconnaissance in hostile terrain.

Edwin Olson, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences, and his team have been selected as finalists in the 2010 Multi Autonomous Ground-Robotic International Challenge (MAGIC) — a competition jointly sponsored by the United States Department of Defense and the Australian Department of Defense Science and Technology Organization.

“The goal of MAGIC is to foster technologies that will allow robots to autonomously help in war zones. So things like doing reconnaissance missions and exploration and finding bad guys and identifying bombs and things like that,” Olson said.

The competition was originally designed to gather research proposals worldwide to develop robotic systems for use in military operations and emergency situations, according to a University press release.

Olson said the competition pushes for robots to be made more useful in the battlefield and for single operators to control multiple robots rather than a team of operators maneuvering a single machine.

The first round of the competition began in November last year when the University competed against 23 college- and corporate-based teams, according to the release. Teams were required to submit a film and a written report detailing their plans along with preliminary results.

“Between that phase and this most recent June … we built a team of five robots that could autonomously go through an environment and explore. There was some human intervention involved in terms of guiding those robots, but the robots really did do a lot on their own,” Olson said.

The ten teams initially selected for funding had each received a $50,000 grant to support their research costs. However, earlier in the month, the competition organizers visited each of the participating teams to observe their robots in action and selected the University to be among six finalists to receive an additional $50,000 in grant funding.

Olson said the six teams will be going to Australia in November for the final round of competitions, which will award $750,000 for the first place team, $250,000 for the runner-up group and $100,000 for the third place team.

Aside from the funding that the University will receive, the competition is also significant for Olson on a personal level.

Olson, who said the competition aligned with a lot of his research goals, added that developing equipment for the military was not originally part of his research agenda.

“It’s not a goal of mine to develop something for the military, but I think robotics technology for the military has a lot of good things going for it,” he said. “For one thing, by putting robots out there, we take our troops out of harm’s way. So I see it fundamentally as a lifesaving technology.”

Olson said the research for this competition is different from his past projects given that his team, which includes five graduate students and one undergraduate student, is faced with developing a team of robots as opposed to a single robot.

“From a research perspective, working with a team of robots presents a lot of interesting challenges,” Olson said. “We have to divide up that work that has to get done between multiple robots and algorithmically that’s a difficult problem.”

Olson said he and his team have been working diligently for the past year and will continue to do so as the competition nears its end, adding that they are aiming for the top prize.

“We want to show off that Michigan is an emerging robotics powerhouse,” he said. “And I think that’s actually true, so we want the world to know … that Michigan is going to be the leader in robotics.”

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