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Up in Smoke: Robots With High Tech Sensors Could Aid Environment and Homeland Security

An army of advanced Switchblade robots designed and created by the UC San Diego Coordinated Robotics Lab recently infiltrated a nearby parking lot and explored clouds of colored smoke set off in a controlled test. The robots measured smoke concentrations and wind velocities as they moved, and were equipped with hightech sensor packs incorporating the following:

An Airmar PB150 weatherstation, to measure wind, GPS location, and compass heading; a Sharp particulate sensor to measure the concentration of the (inert, non-toxic) smoke released during the test; and MEMS accelerometers and gyros to update a Kalman filter, which, together with the GPS, provided the position/orientation estimate.

Equipped with high-tech sensor packs, Switchblade, a robot created by the UCSD Coordinated Robotics Lab, roams a UCSD parking lot detecting smoke. The robot was designed to detect environmental plumes including oil spills, volcanic ash, and possible chemical/radioactive/biological plumes.

The measurements were transmitted in real time (via Wi-Fi and 3G cellular data links) to an off-site supercomputer running advanced weather-forecasting type algorithms pioneered by the UCSD Flow Control Lab. These algorithms, in turn, synchronized a numerical simulation of the smoke plume with the actual measurements taken in the field in real time, then told the vehicles where to move next in order to minimize the uncertainty of the forecast. The goal of the system - which was a success - was to forecast where the smoke was going to go, as precisely as possible, before it got there, while coordinating the vehicles in real time to collect the most valuable information possible for the particular wind conditions present during that test.

"This research has important social relevance related to new technology and algorithms for tracking a wide variety of environmental plumes of interest, from Gulf-coast oil to Icelandic volcanic ash to possible chemical/radioactive/biological plumes in homeland security settings," said mechanical and aerospace engineering professor Thomas Bewley, who directs the two labs involved. See for more on the ongoing project.

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