One of the most fundamental problems in robotics is developing robots that can navigate through the world without damaging themselves or others. There have been many different approaches to accomplishing this task dating from the early days of robotics (such as the Stanford Cart experiments and "Shakey" the robot). In order to solve higher-level problems, test robots must first be taught to safely move through their world.
The goal of this project is to program the Nomad 200 to travel through the Libra Complex. The Nomad 200 has arrays of sonar and infrared sensors mounted on a turret, which can be used to navigate around obstacles. The Nomad has three synchronized wheels, which are controlled by a single rotational/translational velocity parameter or an angle/distance parameter. The Nomad is limited to traveling on relatively flat ground, unlike such robots as the PolyBots, which are designed to mimic natural creatures and travel over diverse terrains.
In this portion of the project, we have programmed the Nomad to wander through a map (following corridors) without running into obstacles. Eventually, we would like the robot to be able to get from its current location to an arbitrary location, given a map of its surrounding area. We are using a simulation program to test our code without risking damage to the robot. The code can then be downloaded onto the robot to test in real-world situations.
The first approach to robot navigation/architecture was the Sense-Plan-Act (SPA) approach. In this method, the robot develops a representation of the world around it using sensors ("sense"), makes a plan of action based on this representation ("plan"), and carries out that action ("act"). The main problem with this approach is that during the time when the robot is planning, the world may change significantly (i.e. if there are moving elements in it). However, this approach was used somewhat successfully by researchers at Stanford, although it was most successful in very simple human-made "worlds."
Rodney Brooks took a new approach to robot architecture with the "subsumption" method. Brooks advocated the development of insect-like robots, which reacted in direct response to sensor input (eliminating the "plan" stage). Such robots would have a default "wander" behavior that was "subsumed" by behaviors such as "run away" if the robot got too close to an obstacle. The problem with this method is that the more things that the robot is capable of, the more complicated the subsumption design gets, until eventually a limit is reached. The can-collecting robot developed in 1988 is considered to be the extent of what can be accomplished with this architecture.
More recently, Erann Gat described a three-layer architecture, which includes elements of both SPA and subsumption. In this approach, the robot has a "Controller," which implements low-level behaviors, a "Sequencer," which determines the order in which to carry out those behaviors, and a "Deliberator," which makes high-level decisions based on current and past states.
The first task researchers developed for each of these architectures was simply to have the robot navigate the world around them. Higher-level tasks (such as collecting Coke cans, etc) all depend on the robot's ability to avoid obstacles. Our project will provide a base from which higher-level functionality can be implemented on the Nomad 200.
Our method is modeled on three-layer architecture. The Controller in our case consists of low-level wall avoiding and corridor-centering behaviors. The Sequencer determines which of these behaviors should be followed, based on sensor input. As of yet, we have no Deliberator, but we intend to continue development by adding in high-level maze navigation, which will become part of the Deliberator.
Our first goal was to program the Nomad to move around and avoid obstacles (low-level wall-avoidance). The approach we took was to test the short-range infrared sensors for nearby objects, and have the robot turn away from them. We only examine the front half of the infrared sensor array because we have the turret and wheels coordinated (i.e. the robot is always moving "forward," or away from obstacles detected by the rear array). We set a "threshold" variable to represent the closest the robot should get to an object without taking evasive action. When the robot has crossed this "threshold," it will slow and turn away from the object. The speed of rotation is inversely proportional to the distance from the object, and the forward velocity is directly proportional to the distance from the object. If infrared sensor 0 is triggered, the robot will slow dramatically as it approaches the obstacle and will turn counterclockwise. If infrared sensors 1 through 3 are triggered, the robot will slow somewhat and turn counterclockwise. Finally, if sonars 13 through 15 are triggered, the robot will slow somewhat and turn clockwise.
On top of this low-level wall avoiding, we have added a layer of control to help center the robot between walls (corridor-following). This is done by the use of proportional control based on the difference between the distance to the walls on either side and the angle at which the robot is moving relative to these walls. The first type of error ("A") we examine is the difference between the distance to the left and right walls, as measured from sonar sensors 4 and 12. The second error ("B") we examine is the difference between the sonar readings for sensors 13 and 11, which will let us know the robot's approximate angle relative to the right wall. Based on the relative sizes of these errors, we set the robot's rotational velocity in order to direct it toward the center of the corridor. In our implementation, we have attempted to prevent the robot from angling itself too sharply to get to the center of the corridor, because sharp angling will lead the robot to overshoot the center and oscillate back and forth.
If the robot is closer to the right wall than the left wall, we have several subcases to examine.
We have programmed the robot to avoid obstacles while wandering through its world. Some parameters used (such as the threshold, default velocities, or proportional constants) provide drastically different results when changed slightly.
After the first week of work, the robot was able to avoid most obstacles, but had difficulty avoiding the corners of rectangular objects. At this point in our work, we had only programmed the low-level wall-avoiding behavior. Figure 1 shows the robot successfully avoiding walls, while Figure 2 shows the robot getting stuck on a corner. It seemed to be the case that the infrared sensors have difficulty detecting pointed objects, but we later discovered that there had been mistake in our reading of the sensors, and in fact we were not ever reading sensor 15. This was caused by the use of an incorrect offset value into the robot's State array, which resulted in reading all of the infrared sensors off by 1. This explains the robot hitting corners, because it always hit on the corner where sensor 15 would have detected the obstacle.
After fixing this during week two, the robot stopped running into corners. We then added support for the long-range sonar sensors. The input from the sonar sensors is used to assist the robot in staying in the middle of hallways (or in the most open space available). We experimented with PID control using the position-relative commands available for the robot rather than the velocity commands. During this stage, the robot (as shown in Fig. 4) continuously oscillated side to side down the hallway. It later became evident that this problem was likely due to the implementation of the position-relative commands. Rather than directing the robot to turn 5 degrees to the left, each time the command was sent the robot would attempt to turn 5 more degrees to the left from its current position. We later abandoned this approach for a method based on setting the robot's rotation velocity.
However, using the position-relative approach, the robot was able to explore a room without hitting obstacles (Fig. 5), although a problem arose when the robot got into a corner (Fig. 6). The primary problem is in the short-range wall-avoidance behavior. The robot senses the wall on its right, and begins to turn counterclockwise; it then senses the other wall on its left, and attempts to turn clockwise. As a result, the robot becomes "stuck" in the corner, attempting to turn first one way and then the other but never getting out. The problem is exacerbated by the corridor-centering technique, because the angled walls in the map led the robot to attempt to center itself between the angled walls, heading straight for the corner. When it got to the corner, the short-range behavior took over, and was unable to get out. This problem is still present in the final version of our programming although it is not always repeatable, and it appears to only be a problem when navigating between sharply angled walls.
To solve this problem, we could change the low-level behavior so that if the robot gets too close to a wall, it gets passed a negative velocity and simply backs away from the wall. This then introduces the problem of how to make sure the robot does not start for the corner again as soon as it is far enough away. However, since most worlds do not have such angled walls, we are temporarily overlooking this issue.
In our third week of work, we developed a new version of the corridor-centering behavior, as described in the "Approach" section. With the new settings, only proportional control is used rather than PID control. With the latest settings, the robot is able to successfully explore a map without hitting anything, and maintains its position in the center of the hallway as long as possible. The major problem the current program has is related to turning corners. The lack of a decision module for corner-turning results in the robot getting "confused" about which way to go in an intersection. With the current implementation, depending on timing the robot may either turn a corner or continue straight if that is an option. There may also be a problem in a situation where the robot is in a "room" rather than a "hallway." In this case, the robot may center itself in the room, but likely would not be able to find a doorway. This may be solved by implementing a wall-following module in addition to the corridor-following function. Wall-following would also produce a simple way to avoid the corner-turning problem. However, wall-following does not seem to be the most intelligent approach to navigation in a given map, which is our future goal. It seems that it might be more useful to follow a corridor and make a decision at the corner rather than simply following the walls until getting to the desired location (which would take much longer).
Overall, the Nomad is currently able to successfully navigate basic maps, maintaining a good distance from most obstacles and never actually hitting anything. The robot still has some problems with turning corners efficiently and with navigating rooms with sharply angled walls (although this problem does not seem to be reliably reproducible). One of the key factors in assuring that the robot does not ever hit obstacles is the use of a "buffer" zone, such that when the robot gets within a certain distance of an obstacle, it will completely stop moving and turn to a safe direction. With respect to the corridor-centering behavior, a key element is detecting how sharply the robot is angled to minimize the amount the robot overshoots its target.
Adding more behaviors would improve the system. First among these additions would be the introduction of a corner-turning behavior and a deliberative layer to determine which direction to turn in an intersection. Also, the addition of a secondary wall-following system would be ideal for the situation in which the robot is in a large open space. In this case, the wall-following behavior would be "turned on," and the robot would continue in one direction until encountering a wall to follow. This would allow the robot to reliably find an exit from a room.
In conclusion, the current system provides a stable foundation for expansion toward navigating to a specific point on a given map. With some minor improvements and additions, this expansion should be within our grasp.
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