Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

U-M robot team wins international competition and $750,000

A team of 14 autonomous robots built by U-M students has won an international competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense and its Australian counterpart, officials announced Tuesday in Brisbane.

U-M’s team of more than 20 students, mostly from Computer Science and Engineering, won a $750,000 grant for finishing in first place of five teams in final round of the contest. MAGIC, which stands for Multi Autonomous Ground-robotic International Challenge, initially involved 23 teams. The competition took place in stages over more than two years.

    Above, Mihai Bulic (foreground) and Johannes Stromwork at the team's command station. Left, U-M's robots are lined up in preparation for a mission. (Photos by Edwin Olson)

“Behind the robots was an amazing team of students who spent countless hours not only building, programming, and testing, but also dealing with the formidable logistical challenges of putting everything together and then shipping it 10,000 miles away,” says team adviser Edwin Olson, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

“MAGIC 2010 gave us the chance to show that our research translates to the real world. Coming home with a check? That’s an awfully nice bonus.”

Open to academic and industry participants, MAGIC’s goal was to demonstrate emerging unmanned technologies that could close the technology gap faced today in urban combat zones.

“While remote-controlled robots are being deployed in operational areas, we need smart, intelligent and fully autonomous systems that can take over from humans in conducting intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions,” says Greg Combet, Australian minister for defense personnel, material and science.

“The ultimate aim is to make these operations much safer for our military personnel, leaving the robots to carry out the dirty and dangerous work.”

Contest participants were tasked with developing swarms of autonomous robots that communicate with each other and operate with minimal human involvement.

During the contest, robots were required to map the 500-meter by 500-meter game arena and locate and disarm mock bombs in the field without harming any simulated civilians.

The U-M team fielded significantly more machines than any other team. Olson said they operated more autonomously and required lower bandwidth for communication. The U-M robots produced an impressive map, Olson says, and found 10 of 12 of the mock bombs in the first two rounds of the contest. The third round proved challenging for all the teams involved.

Judges were impressed with U-M’s real-time highlights feature, which directs human operators to action that most warrants their attention. This feature was developed by Ann Arbor software firm SoarTech.

“This was an outstanding competition and I have been blown away by the technologies these teams demonstrated. I am sure we will look back upon MAGIC 2010 as a watershed moment for our soldiers,” says Jim Overholt, the Army’s senior research scientist for robotics at the Tank Automotive Research Development and Engineering Center.

A team from the University of Pennsylvania won second place and a $250,000 grant. Third place and $100,000 went to Team Reconnaissance and Autonomy for Small Robots, based in Gaithersburg, Md.

The U-M team, from left: Edwin Olson, Robert Goeddel, Pradeep Ranganathan, Andrew Richardson, Ryan Morton, Mihai Bulic, Johannes Strom, and Andrew Dallas (vice president, Soar Tech)